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What is a Stress Reaction and How to Decrease Symptoms 

Brain with pink lines going through to explain that the stress response starts in the brain

A stress response is a series of reactions to stressful events OR traumatic events. There is a cascade of physiological changes that occur when you are experiencing this type of reaction. My goal with this post is to help you understand better than ever or in a different way… What is a stress reaction and how to decrease symptoms of stress.

Y’all, we live in a stressful world. I don’t know anyone personally that will try to debate that. We have so much going on all the time. We have responsibilities, relationships, kids, health challenges, school, jobs, and on and on and on. These are all extremely common causes of stress in our lives. You may have found yourself asking “what am I supposed to do now?”, “how can I function properly and find JOY again?”. 

My Purpose

This, right here, is the reason I started this blog in the first place. Searching for these answers for myself is what led me down the path of being very practical about what works and doesn’t work. I had wound up as your typical “responsible adult” and I was so stressed out and had almost debilitating anxiety. I knew that I could use my experience and expertise to find the answers that needed to be found to help myself and others. And so… welcome to the journey! I’m so happy that you’re here. I really think that people and patients need help with stress almost more than anything else. 

Stress is Everywhere

Stress can be found around any corner. Any health condition. Any relationship. Most jobs. LOL. In addition to being a holistic chiropractor, I teach test preparation classes to chiropractic students. We always chuckle when we see answers on the exam like “avoid aggravating activities” as a choice for case management. It sounds like a no brainer if your elbow hurts when you play tennis, to not play tennis for a couple of weeks. HAHA. BUT, when it comes to stress, there is no avoid aggravating activity button. Most of us can’t just remove all stressors from our lives and move to an island somewhere where stress doesn’t exist. Sounds nice though doesn’t it?

We are all so tired of surviving our lives that we can’t see the purpose and the passion that set us out on our current journey. We can’t start living our dreams because all we have energy for at the end of the day is a cocktail and Netflix.  Well let me tell you, if any of this sounds familiar, you’re in the right place. Let’s see if we can get a better understanding of this very important topic and then let’s see what we can do to find healthy ways to make some real change happen in our lives, minds, and bodies by learning how to decrease symptoms of stress and decreasing stress itself.

The Physiology of Stress

A white chalk drawing on a black background of the brain in the center and all the things going on represented with symbols around the brain. ID how to decrease symptoms of stress.

It may be difficult to believe, but did you know stress can save your life? That’s what it was designed to do. Stress used as short-term responses to REAL threats (like tiger or shark attacks) can absolutely help you get out of danger. Your body’s reaction in those situations is miraculous! 

What is a stress reaction: Basics

Blood rushes into the muscles of your arms and lower legs to help you run (or punch and kick). That’s why your sympathetic nervous system is called your “fight or flight” system. The body is prepared to fight or run away from a dangerous situation. Your pupils dilate to take in lots of visual intel to help you find the nearest escape route. Your physiology prioritizes bodily functions that will help you SURVIVE for the next few minutes. So things like reproductive organs, digestion, urination/defecation, and even thinking well are sacrificed in these few moments until you successfully get away from this threat. Then it is supposed to dissipate and everything return back to a baseline normal.

What is a stress reaction: More Detail

adrenal glands on top of kidneys with spine in background to illustration part of what is a Stress Reaction and How to Decrease Symptoms.

Now that was the basic premise. Here’s where we can get more technical. Neurologically, a stressor can be a toxin, deficiency, a thought, limbic response, or a physical threat. After the perceived threat is detected, the portion of your autonomic nervous system that is responsible for stress responses (sympathetic) sends out initiation/start up signals. 

The nervous system control mechanisms will increase heart rate, respiratory rate, constrict blood vessels to raise blood pressure, and blood sugar while shutting down the parasympathetic nervous system functions like hormone production and immunity in addition to the things I listed above. Patients with an acute stress disorder may feel these symptoms come on suddenly and this can be quite alarming if there isn’t a current threat.

Sympathetics and how to decrease symptoms of stress

The sympathetics (fight or flight response) work with your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (HPA axis) to send signals to the adrenal glands where stress hormones are made. The adrenal medulla produces things like adrenaline and epinephrine while the adrenal cortex increases cortisol levels. 

So along with the physiological changes like heart rate, etc. we also see that catecholamines from the adrenals stimulate an area of the brain called the amygdala so that the emotional memories will be dominate. This is how young children learn to not touch hot stoves over and over again! I’m building a bit of a case here so hang in there with me because I want to stay here with the emotional stress and brain effects for a moment.

This catecholamine production will inhibit factual learning, focus/attention, and memory. Then the amygdala decreases areas in the brain responsible for logical behavior and short term memory. We are also more sensitive to physical and emotional pain during these stressful situations. 

ALL of these things are wonderful and are absolutely the body’s way of helping you survive UNTIL…they become chronic.

The Chronic Stress Reaction

chronic stress demonstrated with laptop and tons of sticky notes to show What is a Stress Reaction and How to Decrease Symptoms once it has become chronic


Having said all of this about the acute stress reaction, once these things are happening on a REGULAR/DAILY basis you can see how your body will be primed for SO many potential hazards. There are so many physical changes that come with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system but you won’t notice them turning into physical symptoms until/unless it becomes chronic activation. 

Once it has been going on for a long time many things can happen, but the big picture is that it puts us at a higher risk for tons of medical conditions. The reason the risk factors increase is because the body isn’t returning back to it’s normal resting state and now is adopting a more stressful baseline state. Your body doesn’t know when to stress and when to relax so it just stresses all the time!

Stress Symptoms:

Here are a few symptoms or health conditions that might show up on a physical exam simply from too much stress:

  • Brain fog
  • Decreased bone health/bone stress injuries (because of cortisol release)
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Decreased immune system function
  • Mental health problems like depression or anxiety 
  • ​Headaches
  • Excess emotional reactions like outbursts of anger, etc 
  • Weight gain
  • Changes in hormone levels
  • Increased cholesterol 
  • Inflammation
  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • In severe cases and given enough time, heart disease

I would like to point out that these clinical signs are most likely adaptations and not “pathologies” that have been diagnosed by your healthcare provider. This is what you body has done to make sure you stay alive. The empowering thing about this concept is that we can control it. We can change this situation! We will discuss how at the end of this post but for now just know that there is a MASSIVE amount of hope for you.

On top of all of this you can’t concentrate and have brain fog because of the catecholamine release. It’s really difficult to problem solve and get yourself out of this cycle when you can’t think straight. It’s no wonder though because research shows that chronic stress can actually shrink your brain cells (hippocampus).

Facilitation and how to decrease symptoms of stress

What the heck is facilitation? 

This concept will give you a window into the operational stress reactions. I want to tell you a story that a BRILLIANT doc told me one time on this topic. She said think of it like this…you open your front door and the ground is covered with 6″ of snow. Everyone in the family needs to get to the car so the Dad goes out first and makes footprints all the way to the car pushing down the snow. Then the Mom goes next in the same footprints pushing it down even more. Then the oldest to youngest children follow. 

By the time the last child goes through, it is so super easy to walk to the car because all the snow was pushed down and this made the path quick and easy to move through. Your brain does a similar thing with facilitation. The more your brain does something…the more it wants to do that same thing over and over again. Each time it gets easier and easier to do.


Your body and brain like what they know. Neurologists call this neuroplasticity. Have you heard of it? It basically means that the more you do something, the better you get at it. The brain gets really, really efficient at things it does all the time. This can be great news just as much as it can be horrific news so we just have to know how to hack into the system and change a stressful situation into a burst of energy into the positive. The brain can get really good at shutting off our stress responses as well.

How to decrease sympathetic activation 

Now for the good stuff!!! Let’s take all that bad stuff and figure out how to shut it down…RIGHT NOW!

Mental Health

Picture of 2 people holding a picture of a head with a smily face in the brain and how to decrease symptoms of stress by addressing mental health concerns.

I’m discussing this first because I have found that this is one of the most profound areas to work on when you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I also feel like it is less talked about among doctors that mostly work on the body and that’s a shame because it is JUST. SO. IMPORTANT.

​You have a place in your brain (left prefrontal cortex) that can shut down the stress response by releasing GABA when you have a positive thought. When people say “mind over matter” it’s annoying but it is actually neurologically true! 

The next time someone wants to poo poo your affirmations, prayers, or manifestation practices just say this “it shuts down the amygdala-locus ceruleus-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and drives my physiology towards homeostasis”! Lol! Let me know what the person’s face looks like.

The problem with this is that it is very difficult to fire this area of the brain and think positively when you are under chronic stress. 

See this related post and read it even if you aren’t a student. There are lots of good things in here to help you.

Mind-Body Reading for the Science Nerds

Herbert Benson – Harvard Mind-Body Institute

Candace Pert – Neuroscientist

You can get her book, “Molecules of Emotion”used for around $1!

Gratitude and how to decrease symptoms of stress

Drawing of a head with "train your brain" in the text in red and how to decrease symptoms of stress by looking for things to be grateful for.

Before I give you my comments on this and the next section, I would like to refer you to THIS episode of the Rachel Hollis podcast. Here she talks about her method which includes gratitude, affirmations, and goals. I have found this to be absolutely transformational. 

If you can do something like this daily (or almost daily) it will produce that facilitaiton physiology in the brain but for the positive. Making it easier and easier to see the good in your life. This a good thing to implement into relaxation techniques that you may use like deep breathing, etc. This goes a long way in shutting off the stress response.

Just make a list every morning or if you’re like me, ever night. List 3-5 things that make you smile and make you feel thankful. 

See also: The Neuroscience of Gratitude and Effects on the Brain

Affirmations and Goals

Affirmations have been shown to reduce stress and build resilience. I love that when you build an affirmation, you are stating that the “thing” whatever that may be, is already true. When I’m struggling with patience I say to myself “I am a patient and joyful parent” and then I pretend (if need be) that I am that. Haha! It sounds so funny to write that out but it ACTUALLY works. 

So just make whatever you want to be true into a statement that MAKES it true. The more you think on good things and say your affirmations, the easier it will be for your brain to look for those things and shut of the stress response that comes while worrying about the future or beating yourself up about the past.

This article gives some benefits and some good places to start with affirmations.

NeuroEmotional Technique (NET) and how to decrease symptoms of stress

fMRI pre and post NET technique showing decreased activity in the primitive brain and stress response and how to decrease symptoms of stress with NET

A picture is worth a thousand words. Even if you’ve never seen a functional brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) in your life, you can tell the difference between the before and after. The area that is active in the first image is that part of the brain we talked about at the beginning of this post. The area that is initiating this cascade of stress responses. 

I’m hoping that this technique is sounding more and more familiar to people. This technique is performed by health care providers who have been certified. Find one here . This is truly transformational because it works on the other than conscious part of your mind. Sometimes critical incidents occur and get stored deep in our limbic brains and we can’t consciously change that. Doing things at the conscious level is extremely powerful but there are stressors firing off all the time that you aren’t even aware of, and uncovering those is what this technique does so well.

That is what makes this particular stress reduction method so unique and so vital in today’s world.

Here’s the research: 

Here’s a documentary about the technique:

Social Support

a group of 4 friends happily conversating and how to decrease symptoms of stress with meaningful friendships

I most recently heard some amazing research from Arthur Brooks, who is a professor at Harvard and has a PhD. His research is about Happiness! He teaches a class called “The Art and Science of Happiness”. Now, if there’s one amazing cure for stress, it is happiness and joy.

One of the things in his researched prescription for happiness is social relationships and support. We are meant for meaningful and positive connections with people and without it we are simply stressed and unhappy. This will help your behavioral reactions tremendously.

So if the normal state of your social life is lonely or toxic, put some energy into changing the situation some. Break out of your box and make some new connections that will change your brain and maybe your life for the better. I should also say that having physical social support is so important. Having friends online is helpful but in person is exponentially better!

Chiropractic Care and how to decrease symptoms of stress

man lying on back with female chiropractor touching his neck and how to decrease symptoms of stress with chiropractic adjustments.

Oh yeah! Let’s talk about chiropractic! So most people know that chiropractors are good at helping patients with headaches and back pain which honestly can help shut off a stress response by itself. But let’s take it a step further.

When you receive an adjustment, this sends sensory input into the brain (proprioception). Your brain actually needs activation more than it needs oxygen or nutrients if you can believe that. This is such a powerful treatment to increase your brain function and when you do that many many things are possible but one thing is for sure, your stress response will be decreased. I will write a future post allllll about chiropractic and how amazing it is for stress, so stay tuned.

Physical activity

Happy people in a line hiking on a green mountain and how to decrease symptoms of stress by exercising.

An amazing doctor once told me “if you exercise, you are training your body to stress only when you workout and the rest of the day your body can be in relaxation mode”. I found this to be such a good thing to hear at the time. I didn’t want to lose 50 pounds or run a marathon, I just wanted to not have anxiety and feel so stressed all day, every day. 

There’s really no way around it, regular exercise is a required nutrient for health. This is, has been, and will be what the research is showing. Remember, you don’t have to become a regular runner or join a team of field athletes if that’s not you. We just want some small doses of activity to decrease your symptoms of stress. This really only takes a tiny activity modification.

Start small with you tiny cracks of time and add in some physical activities that you enjoy or learn a new sport and you will notice the difference right away. Add in your favorite music for a nice mood boost.

Also, if you’ve got an old injury that is keeping you from being as active as you would like to be, get some physical therapy to rehab your old energy so you can get moving.

By the way, we stated earlier that the hippocampus can shrink due to stress but exercise can increase the size of these same cells! Isn’t the body so amazing?

​A Healthy Diet and how to decrease symptoms of stress

Brain filled with whole foods to show how nutrition can help you to learn how to decrease symptoms of stress

Please see this post for some tips.. I give some supplement recommendations, etc here.

The basic premise we are working towards is to eliminate stressors that may be coming from the things you are eating or NOT eating. All stress comes from too much bad and/or not enough good. I always think it is easier to add things into your current diet than eliminating things right off the bat. 

Adding in a green smoothie or juice is the most potent way to get in massive amounts of nutrients with a little bit of effort. Juicing is great because the nutrients can flood your system with very little effort since you have removed the insoluble fiber but I’ll just say there’s no wrong way to consume fruits and veggies. I just know that when I juice I feel like I have super powers! I also feel like an awesome parent when my little guy takes part as well. 

If you would prefer a supplement to fill in some nutritional gaps Catalan from standard process is the best one that I have found. It’s from whole foods and not fractionated nutrients so we are getting in all the co-enzymes and factors that haven’t been “discovered” in a science lab yet. I also recommend looking into adaptogens as well. See the link to a previous post above.

If you’re feeling ready to eliminate some stressors from your diet, please reduce your intake of the omega-6 linoleic acid. See more on this important topic


person's hands breaking out of handcuffs by learning how to decrease symptoms of stress

It’s my sincere hope that you found something here that helped you. I hope you have learned something about your stress reaction and have found some powerful and practical ways of how to decrease symptoms of stress. This really is just scratching the surface on how much you really can do to control the stress response in your body. Please let me know how I can help you further along your journey and also subscribe to my email list if you would like more content like this. I would also LOVE it if you would share this with someone that you think would benefit from it.

I’m so proud of you for seeking out answers and getting better than you were yesterday! Talk to you soon.

Dr. Bri


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