Making friends with stress
It is a scientific fact that stress creates reactions in the body which affect our physical, mental and emotional responses. Stress comes from our environment, our body and our thoughts. It is an inevitable and perfectly normal ingredient in our lives and isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Stress can be positive, keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger. It helps us to get the job done and only becomes negative when we face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation in between. As a result, we become overworked and stress-related tension starts to build.
Adrenaline is the primary fight or flight hormone and is largely responsible for the immediate reaction that happens when we are stressed. Imagine you are being chased by a fierce dog. Your heart pounds, your breathing gets faster, you might break into a sweat or your muscles tense up. The presence of a frightening stimulus triggers a cascade of hormones in the brain which results in adrenaline and cortisol being released. The adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and diverts blood to the brain – making you more alert – and the skeletal muscles in readiness for fight or flight.
Adrenaline also causes you to sweat (to manage the heat created by the muscles working hard) and contracts the pupils to sharpen your vision. Cortisol actually causes glucose to be released from glycogen stores which is what gives you the ‘surge of energy’ that is needed for fight or flight.
Amit Sood, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine to explains:
‘Primarily, the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions and survival instincts, recognises a threat. It then sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus – which produces many of the body’s essential hormones – to produce corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release another hormone, which tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
‘In survival mode, optimal amounts of cortisol can be life saving, aiding the maintenance of fluid balance and blood pressure while regulating some body functions that aren’t crucial at that moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth.
‘But when you remain in a heightened state of anxiety or chronic stress, the body continuously releases cortisol and chronically elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Too much cortisol can become toxic, suppressing the immune system, increasing blood pressure and altering sugar levels.’