The body has a natural defense for life-threatening situations — a hormone called adrenaline.
We no longer live in a world of the occasional threat: 24/7 access to information, long work hours, driving in traffic, tough relationships, keeping up with the kids and for some, doing nothing – stress is everywhere.
Our brains plus stress – in particular the frontal cortex (the brain’s executive center) – send a ‘red alert’ to the hypothalamus (the hormonal control center), triggering a flood of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.
Simultaneously, this cocktail of stress hormone prompts the heart to quadruple the amount of blood it pumps, from about 5 litres to 20 litres a minute, providing more energy. But the blood travels a different route, away from the skin, gut and kidneys, to the muscles, so that energy can be used to fight or flee.
The body can normally only deal with sporadic amounts of stress. If there is no recuperation or relaxation period, which means the body is in a constant state of stress, the condition slowly deteriorates into what is better described as “distress”. As a result, disorders and illnesses begin to manifest themselves, which can include feelings of anxiety and moodiness, trouble sleeping, muscle pain and headaches, all the way to depression, panic attacks, and complete overwhelm.
Chronic stress response results in constant fatigue and decreased immunity, less defense against viruses, as well as more inflammation, shorter telomeres (the autocorrect function in genes) and accelerated aging of cells. Long-term stress depletes the body of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, leaving you depressed and cloudy, and making it difficult to concentrate. Chronic adrenaline leaves you hyper and more irritable. Everything becomes a big deal because it’s hard not to sweat the small stuff.
We all grossly underestimate the role of stress. There is the obvious increase of blood pressure, risk of stroke, heart attack and diabetes, however, chronic stress plays some part in all illnesses.
It can be challenging to sort out and prioritize your busy life and manage your stress, which then becomes another stressor. In the upcoming months we will review some strategies to help manage stress, both acute (current) and chronic (long term). But for today, what you can do is this: Stop or slow down, and breathe. Just breathe three or four deep, aware breaths. Stop and notice your body quietly. Better yet, get outside into a green space, or the beach and breathe deeply. Do that!
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