This Stress curve diagram shows how some stress can help us work at our best but also what happens when demands become too much.

Read description of the Stress curve diagram

Download this diagram as a pdf:

The point at which we might start to struggle is very personal – everyone’s response to various situations, and what they find stressful is different. 

The Flight or fight response

When the brains register a high level of stress it can think we’re in danger or under attack. It then responds by triggering a primitive human response known as ‘Flight or fight’.

The ‘Flight or fight’ or ‘threat’ response evolved millions of years ago when early humans often met life-threatening situations. When suddenly faced with a saber-toothed tiger, we needed to react quickly by either running away or fighting.

The threat response is triggered as soon as the brain becomes aware of a possible danger. Hormones, called adrenaline and cortisol, are quickly released to help the body prepare for running away or fighting. These changes include:

  • our breathing getting quicker and heavier to take in extra oxygen
  • the heart beating faster to send blood to the leg muscles
  • muscles all over the body tensing and legs shaking to get ready to run
  • feeling ‘butterflies’ in the stomach as blood is diverted from the digestive system

Watch our Flight or fight animation to learn more about anxiety and the threat response.

Flight or fight animation

Download our Flight or fight diagram as a pdf:

We no longer face the threat posed by wild animals but this response can still be life-saving when meeting real dangers like, for example, stepping in front of a speeding car.

Modern stresses are not usually life-threatening, however. They may be big life changes like redundancy or getting married, for example, or major emotional upsets like bereavement. They can also be more day-to-day hassles like:

  • Getting stuck at work when you need to pick the children up from school.
  • Revising late into the night for an exam.
  • Needing to buy a new washing machine when your rent is due.
  • Being told of a problem with your benefits.

Unfortunately, these everyday situations can still trigger the same automatic response and our bodies react as if we are in real physical danger.