Avery Post

Stress 7 – The Chemistry of Stress

How Stress Hijacks your Brain:

The neuroscience of human psychology is fascinating. Today we look at the main brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) involved in stress and my next stress blog will cover the chemicals related to stress relief. Understanding how this work helps you to accept and accommodate yourself and others when stressed.

The part of your body that ramps you up to deal with a stressor or perceived threat is the quick-acting “sympathetic” nervous system. It involves nerves, brain cells, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) throughout your body, and automatic functions that are out of your conscious control.

The moment you perceive a potential threat your body is preparing you to respond to this stressor immediately. Within 30 seconds hundreds of hormones are rushing through your body to get you ready to fight, flee, freeze or faint. (Yes, now there are 4 recognized options!)

Due to these neurotransmitters, long term stress (either the same bad thing keeps happening, or lots of things happen that overwhelm your ability to cope) leads to heart disease, sleep disorders, obesity, depression, skin problems, and memory impairment.

Then, even under optimal conditions, stress can take two hours longer or more to “get over it”, calm down or return to a more optimal state. This can only happen if there aren’t more stressors or threats occurring.

Ramping stress up: When you are feeling scared or anxious, the region of the brain called the hypothalamus (your natural alarm system) stimulates the production of cortisol and adrenaline.

Cortisol is the stress hormone that ramps up fear and anxiety. It also suppresses your immune, digestive, and reproduction systems. Too much cortisol causes the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stimulates brain cell production) to short circuit, thereby impairing thoughts and memory formation. This explains why it is difficult to remember and think straight right after a stressor.

Adrenaline raises heart rate, changes blood pressure, and increases energy. Too much adrenaline can cause you to shake and sweat. You are left with too little blood in your brain and lots of energy in your muscles.

Luckily, you have a “parasympathetic nervous system that works to counteract the over-reactions of the sympathetic system. It uses 8 neurochemicals to counteract cortisol and adrenaline – but it takes on average 2 hours to return to a resting state.

What stresses you most? What is your favourite Stress Buster?

Check out my previous posts about stress:

Stress Part 1 - The Stress Response : The Setup

Stress Part 2 - Stress and Our Body

Stress Part 3 - Stress and Relationships

Stress Part 4 - Stress and Work Life Imbalance

Stress Part 5 - Managing Unrealistic Expectations

Stress Part 6 - Stress Busters

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