Exercise and Stress: Why Do We Feel Stress?

What is stress? We all talk about stress, but really, what is it? Many people will confuse anxiety with stress, but below we set out to clarify exactly what it is.

Basically, stress is the feeling of being in danger and having no control over environment or time in our lives. All of us have found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam when we have an important meeting scheduled. The hands of the clock are moving, but the traffic is not. We experience an unpleasant tickle in our stomach, a growing tension, we may even start to sweat and start to feel irritable. We could, perhaps, suffer some sort of physical symptoms like tachycardia or excessive sweating. What is happening?

Fight Or Run Away?

Humans are animals and while we’ve evolved over time, social challenges have evolved more quickly. This injection of adrenaline is a return to our past when we lived like animals.

Animals with two and four legs face danger in two possible ways: face your opponent and fight to protect themselves or choose to run. To be most effective – to be stronger or run faster, the body releases adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster, increasing blood pressure. This is important for muscles as it allows them more strength than normal.


Our immune system is activated and ready to heal some wounds. Our attention and our view become much sharper and more focused. Our pain sensation decreases because the body secretes a analgesic hormone. If you are in a field and a bull begins running towards you, you will find that you can run faster than normal and jump higher than you thought you could. In the heat of the moment, you may find yourself running through nettles and brambles without feeling a thing.

The problem is that the automatic reaction of the body to secrete adrenaline is still attached to our bodies and kicks into action every time we see danger. Of course finding ourselves in a traffic jam with the clock ticking away is not a real threat, but our brain may interpret it as such and react with this process.

Today our brains may react with a fight or flight response to seemingly simple, everyday situations that are not real threats, but can trigger the response: moving homes, a difficult boss, a divorce, separation, the demands of children during the aforementioned traffic jam, fear, etc.

The curious thing is that once the “danger” disappears, then the symptoms do as well. Therefore, we can say that it is not the person or situation per sé that causes problems but our perception of them. A traffic jam or an interview with the boss or a visit to the doctor’s office is not inherently stressful, but our perception of them can be. In our next post we will see how exercise and other methods can help to manage stress.

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