Address Your Stress: The Science of Stress

Address Your Stress: The Science of Stress

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… to get very, very stressed out. The holiday period is often associated with feelings a joy and togetherness, but there is an underlying emotion which threatens to pull the tinsel form the tree: Stress. Stress is a tricky feeling to describe as it affects almost every part of your body; twisting your stomach into knots, clamming up your skin and putting your head into a tizz. And as to what triggers stress? Well, the list is endless – from completing that back-breaking work deadline before you finish for the holidays to having to answer the ’So why aren’t you married yet?’ from your Aunt Hilda over Christmas lunch. Like other emotions, your brain is to blame for the initiation of the stress response – releasing specific chemical signallers which act on other areas of your body to produce those all-consuming feels. And although experiencing stress can feel completely out of control, the stress response actually acts as a ‘loop’ to shut itself down. A break in this system can be disastrous to an individual, leading to both short- and long-term health problems. One way to address stress is to learn what is physically is. So lets get cracking on nailing down the stress response and learn some coping mechanisms to have a stress-free Christmas! 

All in the Chemicals

Being stressed may feel like an unnecessary burden but this response has been crucial to our survival. The evolutionary purpose of inducing a state of stress was to prepare an individual to attack or skedaddle in the face of threat; a response known as ‘fight or flight’. Stress directs energy from ‘maintenance’ activities like growth, digestion and immunity to make you more alert, increase your heart rate and direct your focus onto the situation in hand. This energy boost means organisms, including humans, are given the best chance at surviving the threat they are facing.

The sensation of stress is mediated by hormones and your body responds in two ways when faced with a stressor: a ‘fast’ immediate response (the ‘oh my goodness I am sweating and freaking out’ one) and a slow, lets-keep-this-ticking-along response. Each stress response has a different hormone at it’s core

1.The Fast Stress Response = Adrenaline
Adrenaline is the ruler of the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is the hormone which drives the dropping of your stomach, the thumping of your heart against your rib cage and the sweating on your brow. When adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) enters your blood stream following a stressful encounter, it activates the sympathetic nervous system – leading to all of the above sensations with the addition of increasing your blood pressure, dilating your pupils and stopping salvia production (explaining why you mouth dries up when having to give a big presentation!). Overall, adrenaline is needed to gather up as much energy as possible to prime you to have it out or run out the door. 

 

2.The Slow Stress Response = Cortisol
During that initial intense sympathetic stress response, you experience an increase of a steroid called cortisol in your bloodstream. Cortisol acts in stress to increase the level of sugar in your blood, stop inflammation and improve your cognitive functions like memory. Elevated cortisol helps to maintain a heightened stress response if needed by increasing energy and can enhance your memory skills; enabling you to detail every moment of the stressful event in case you are faced with a similar situation again. Oddly enough, cortisol also acts as the ‘off switch’ for stress. A system which produces the chemical needed to switch itself off is called a negative feedback loop. 

Let’s go round again: The Stress Loop

The stress response is started with the purpose of it being switched off. But how exactly does this work? Understanding not just what these ‘stress chemicals’ are but when they are released and where they act in the body drive our stress sensations

Let’s say you are walking through a jungle all alone and come face-to-face with a huge lion. The first thing your brain will do is process signals from your vision (‘A big, teeth-bearing predator staring you in the face’), hearing (‘Low, threatening, growls) and your memory (‘Remember than nature documentary when a huge lion ate an antelope like it was a piece of lettuce?’). If the brain deems this information to be threatening, it will send signals with a common message – STRESS!!! The stress signal is received at the hypothalamus; a small region at the base of the brain which contains hormone-releasing neurons; and activates the release of 2 hormones: corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP). CRH is the activator of the stress-response whereas AVP is a booster; like a dimmer light being switched on (CRH) and whacked up to full brightness (AVP). The stress response needs this booster in order to differentiate the severity of stress you are currently in. It would be pretty bad if you acted like you had just burnt your dinner when you were facing a hungry human-killer… a *bit* of a different sitch. 

When CRH and AVP are released from the hypothalamus, they activate a small brain-based gland called the pituitary gland. Some glands are sites of hormone storage and production, with the pituitary is being the ‘master gland’. This gland can signal to glands all over the body and augment their hormone release. When the pituitary gland is stimulated by CRH and AVP, it sends out a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) to activate the adrenal glands situated just above the kidneys. The adrenal glads then release our friends; adrenaline and cortisol; who get to work on the fast (fight or flee from the lion) and slow stress responses. Cortisol enters the brain through the blood stream and signals to the hypothalamus ‘Hey! I’m here! The stress response was successfully initiated’. The hypothalamus then stops releasing CRH and AVP and hey presto, you are stressed no more!

Coping over Christmas

Heightened stress can be really damaging to the human body and mind. If your stress loop is not properly regulated, this can lead to major issues down the line like depression, infertility and heart problems, not to mention the emotional, physical and psychological toll it can have on you and your loved ones in the short term. With a holiday period where the expectation of being ‘perfect’ is heightened, here are a few tips to stop your stress response from going into overdrive.

1. Take yourself away from the stressful situation: if you feel yourself getting stressed, excuse yourself and have a break alone. Some deep breathing and meditation can be a great relief in those quieter times.
2. Do something you enjoy: it is very easy to get wrapped up (pardon the pun) pleasing others over the holidays but doing something fun for you is a known stress-reliever.
3. Get moving: At Christmas, we all have a tendency to have ‘lazy days’ for weeks on end. And while curling up and watching a film is lovely, sitting down all day is not great for your mind. Get out the house, walk around the block or go to the gym to prevent an internal stress build-up. 
Signing off

Stress is something we all experience and deal with in different ways, but the neurological underpinnings remain consistent from person to person. Just remember that if you are stressed, that response is made to be switched off. It should be a temporary situation and if this is not the case, make sure to seek help from your doctor. Throughout the holidays, make sure you take time for yourself and if you feel the stress levels rising, make sure you take it by the reigns and partake in a de-stressing activity. After all, we should all be able to have ourselves a merry little Christmas. 

Brain hugs,

Julia (@me_mycells_andi) xoxo

For a fuller post on stress, check out my blog or read the links I used to write this post below. Also, see my website for all things brain!

Main Review on Stress | Cortisol Dysfunction | Brain regulation of Stress

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Hannah
7 months ago

Hi Julia, absolutely loving these articles. Have been so excited to read more after the first one and just figured out how to find them all! PS, just incase it’s helpful, the link to your website doesn’t seem to work atm. Thanks so much for doing this. Love your work!