Physiology vs. psychology

You’re late to an important meeting because you’re stuck in traffic. You begin to feel annoyed, then angry. Your heart rate rises and your muscles tense up. There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, yet your body has taken its cues from your upset brain, and it’s preparing for “fight or flight.” This is the perfect example of the relationship between physiology and psychology.

There are quite a few differences between physiological stress vs. psychological stress, but they are closely related. Psychological stress – the emotions you feel when you’re stuck in traffic – precipitates physiological stress, or the physical changes in your nervous system. This is how stress has negative effects not only on your mindset but on your body and even your lifespan.

You can manage both types of stress in your life and alleviate their impact. First it’s essential to understand the different effects of psychological vs. physiological stress and the relationship between them. Only then can you get rid of your anxiety once and for all.

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Physiological stress vs. psychological stress

When we think of stress, we likely think of situations that make us uncomfortable or anxious. Public speaking is a common stressor. Many of us are also familiar with social anxiety. These are acute, short-term stressors. We might also think of long-term stress: pressure at work and at home, constantly feeling busy yet unproductive or always putting others first at the expense of our own self-care. These are all examples of psychological stress. 

Physiological stress is the body’s response to stressors. It’s what happens at a cellular level within your body when it’s facing a situation that it thinks requires its “fight or flight” response. Those cellular changes are what cause you to sweat before you give a presentation or make your heart race before skydiving.

Physiological stress can also be caused by illness, addiction and even drinking too much. When the body is forced to deal with too many toxins or pathogens, it sends out cells of its own to “clean up.” That can stress the body physiologically. Here we’ll be talking only about the relationship between physiology and psychology, not about stress caused by physical factors.

Effects of stress on the body

psychological vs physiological stress

These two types of stress are very closely related – but the difference between physiological stress vs. psychological stress is ultimately less important than the very real negative effects that any type of stress has on your body. When you experience a stressor, your brain sends signals to your nervous system and endocrine system to begin sending out stress hormones like cortisol. These are what cause your heart to beat faster and blood to rush to your head and heart.

Stress also affects your respiratory, digestive and muscular systems. Your lungs will breathe more rapidly. Your liver will produce extra glucose for energy. Your muscles will tense up to protect themselves. If this all sounds exhausting, you’re right. And when the stress doesn’t go away – a high-pressure job, a constantly on-the-go lifestyle – your body can’t keep up.

Short-term stress may make it hard to breathe, cause tension headaches, stomach aches and heartburn or make it difficult to fall asleep. But the relationship between physiology and psychology means that chronic stress is especially dangerous for us. It can lead to high blood sugar, increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, weight gain, depression, decreased sex drive and more. You must learn how to handle stress before these symptoms start affecting your quality of life.

How to manage your stress

Tony says that what you focus on, you feel – and that perfectly sums up the relationship between physiology and psychology. That’s why to manage your stress you must start with your mind and then focus on your body. 

Embrace an attitude of gratitude 

To feel less stressed, shift your thoughts away from the stressors in your life and focus on the positive. As Tony says, “When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears.” But feeling grateful can be easier said than done. You’ll need to adopt positive habits that cultivate gratitude, such as practicing priming, meditation or yoga. Consider keeping a gratitude journal to document the abundance surrounding you.   

Bring balance to your life 

When we’re talking about psychological vs. physiological stress, we’re actually talking about the mind and body being out of balance. The body’s reactions to stressors are designed to bring back homeostasis, or equilibrium between its elements. In life as in the body, when one area is off it can throw everything off balance. Use the Wheel of Life Assessment to determine where your gaps are so that you can bring balance back to your life. 

Change your physiology

The relationship between physiology and psychology also goes the opposite way: you can change the way you feel by changing your body. When you change your posture or adopt a power pose, you’ll feel more confident. When you smile – even when you don’t want to – you’ll automatically feel happier.  When you learn relaxation techniques like deep breathing, you’ll feel more relaxed.

Want to avoid the negative effects of stress?

To stop feeling stressed and start living life to its fullest, use the DISC Assessment to understand what drives your behaviors.