How Your Stress Response Is Triggered

Woman in stress in front of computer
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When you feel stressed, whether you face a real threat or merely think that you are facing a threat, your body experiences a collection of changes known as your stress response, or your fight-or-flight responseYour stress response is the collection of physiological changes that occur when you face a perceived threat, that is when you face situations where you feel the demands outweigh your resources to successfully cope. These situations are known as stressors.

Physical Changes

When your stress response is triggered, a series of changes occur within your body. They include:

  • A quickening of your pulse
  • A burst of adrenaline
  • Redirection of blood away from extremities and instead to major organs
  • The release of cortisol and other hormones, which bring other short- and long-term changes

Common Triggers

The stress response is intended to give you a burst of energy so you’re able to fight off attackers or run away from them effectively. This helped our ancestors, who faced numerous physical threats, to stay safe. In these times, the main threats faced were physical in nature and short-lived, usually predators who are an extreme physical threat and then gone.

However, now our threats tend to be less physical and more associated with our way of life—a challenge to our status, demand for performance, or any situation where the demands involved may exceed our ability to cope or require us to work on coping. In addition to giving us a set of changes that may not match our needs as well (it might be more effective for us to have a burst of mental clarity or wisdom than a burst of physical strength when facing a psychosocial stressor, for example), the stress response can actually cause harm if it leads to a state of chronic stress—that is, if our stress response is triggered, and then our body doesn’t go back to its normal state via the relaxation response.

It is also important to remember that the strength of the stress response is related to the level of perceived threat rather than an actual, physical threat. This is why two people can experience the same situation and have different stress reactions to the same thing; some people perceive a threat where others don't. Knowing this, people can reduce the strength of their stress response by reminding themselves that this particular threat may not be as immediate as they feel it is. This is difficult to do, however, particularly for those who don't realize it is a possibility.

Also, because of this, we may experience a greater level of the stress response when someone is rude to us in a high-stakes social situation than when driving a car in busy traffic, where our chances of being physically hurt are actually greater. Likewise, this is why we can experience great levels of stress when speaking in public when there's no actual physical danger (and relatively little social danger), but we feel threatened and find our hands shaking and sweating, and our feet are cold as the adrenaline and redirection of blood flow show their effects. This also comes into play when we have negative experiences in our childhood that become stress triggers later in life when we feel that we may be hurt in similar ways but aren't actually in danger. 

How to Manage Your Stress Response

Because of the toll of chronic stress, it’s important and healthy to find a collection of strategies that can help reverse the body’s stress response and bring it back to its natural state. There are several effective ways to do this and used together, they can help you to reverse your body's stress response when you don't need it, and minimize the number of times it's triggered unnecessarily throughout the day.

  • Quick Stress Relievers: Finding relatively quick and effective ways to calm your body and mind can help you to reverse your body's stress response. This is a great first line of defense for stress, and there are many strategies that can work. 
  • Stress Relief Habits: Maintaining longer-term habits that help you to build resilience toward stress may take more time and effort, but can really pay off in the long run. Once they become regular features in your lifestyle, these habits can make you less reactive to the stress you encounter in life. 
  • Shift Your Perspective: If you're able to change the way you look at the stressors in your life, you may find that some of them don't trigger the same reaction after a while. This is because the way you perceive things, as mentioned earlier, can either minimize or exacerbate the level of threat that seems to be involved. 
  • Build Your Resources: As mentioned, the stress response can be triggered when you feel you don't have the resources to manage a challenge you face. Building your personal resources can shift the balance of what triggers this response because, with more personal resources to draw upon, you have a greater trust that you can handle what comes. Fortunately, you can actually take small steps in your life to help yourself build these resources relatively easily. 
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Medical School. Understanding the stress response.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response?.

  3. Bertilsson J, Niehorster DC, Fredriksson PJ, et al. Stress Levels Escalate When Repeatedly Performing Tasks Involving Threats. Front Psychol. 2019;(10):1562.  doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01562

  4. National Institutes of Health. 5 things you should know about stress.

  5. American Psychological Association. Manage stress: strengthen your support network.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.