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Last week I discussed the brain’s response to acute and chronic stress. As mentioned I will be focusing on the effect of acute and chronic stress on the heart, lungs, circulatory system and immune system.

Once again, I will need you to imagine the lioness scenario for you to better understand these responses. For those of you who just joined this blog, here is the scenario:

You are visiting a lion park and one of their lionesses accidentally escapes their cage. Unfortunately, you are not in a car as you are allowed to walk around among the cages. The lioness is now chasing you.


As the lioness comes closer to you, your heart rate and blood pressure will increase immediately.

Firstly, chemical messengers (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol) are secreted to raise heart rate and blood pressure. The blood vessels that direct blood to large muscles and the heart, dilate (enlarge) to increase the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body. Once the stress episode passes, the body will return to its normal state.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, experienced over an extended period, can contribute to long-term problems for blood vessels and your heart. The constant and ongoing increased heart rate and an increase in blood pressure can take a toll on the cardiovascular system. This can also increase your risk for hypertension, stroke and/or heart attack.


Using the same example, as the lioness comes closer to you, your breathing will become quicker (more rapid) and your lungs will take in more oxygen.

Rapid breathing (hyperventilation) can cause panic attacks in people who are prone to panic attacks.

Stress can also cause you to breathe harder, which is not usually a problem for most people, but for those suffering from asthma getting the oxygen you need to breathe more easily can become difficult. Some studies indicate that acute stress can trigger asthma attacks, where the airway between the nose and lungs constricts (narrows).


The spleen plays multiple important roles within the body, but in the event of a stressful response, the spleen discharges red and white blood cells, enabling the blood to transport more oxygen throughout the body to vital organs such as the muscles, brain and lungs for added demands.


According to Suzanne Segerstrom, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has conducted studies on stress and the immune system: “Some kinds of stress, very short-term, that last only a matter of minutes, actually redistribute cells in the bloodstream in a way that could be helpful. But once stress starts to last a matter of days, there are changes in the immune system that are not so helpful. And the longer that stress lasts, the more potentially harmful those changes are.”

Once you come face-to-face with the lioness, the brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline. This will increase your heart rate and enable your blood vessels to dilate so blood can flow quickly to the muscles in the legs. Besides helping you to escape, this type of acute stress also boosts the immune response for three to five days (possibly to assist with the healing process should the lioness wound you and possibly create infection).

Next week we will look at the rest of the body’s response to acute stress: the mouth, throat, skin and so forth.

Until next week,
Stay stress-free!

Author’s note:
All information in this blog was researched for this blog, and is not intended for self-diagnosis or to be used as medical advice. All medical questions should be directed to a healthcare professional such as a doctor or pharmacist.

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