The Chemical Story of Stress

Stress is a part of your life and your world. No doubt about it.

If you look at all that you do in life, how you set up your schedule, what you choose to do for fun – much of it can be considered stimulating. Stimulating to the body, stimulating to the mind.

While some stimulation is good, too much can create problems.

The Chemical Story of Stress

When encountering a stressful situation, your nervous system does an excellent job of rapidly preparing you to deal with what is perceived as a threat to your safety. It does this by releasing certain hormones or chemicals which trigger actions in the body. Two vital hormones are released from the adrenal glands: adrenaline or epinephrine and cortisol or hydrocortisone.
Adrenaline increases your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure so that more oxygen-rich blood goes to the brain and to the muscles to fuel fighting or fleeing. It also ramps up your brain making your senses become keener, your memory sharper, and you less sensitive to pain.

Cortisol, known as "the stress hormone," mainly regulates and controls your body's reaction to stress by triggering an immunological response that heightens the body’s ability to endure stressful situations. Other hormones shut down unnecessary bodily functions such as growth, reproduction, blood flow to the skin, and the immune system. These functions are placed on hold until after the emergency. With your mind and body in this temporary state of metabolic overdrive, you are now prepared to respond to a life-threatening situation.

In the short-term, all these responses are important and healthy.

However, when the body is forced to continually respond to stress on a chronic basis, numerous physical and mental problems arise.

Physically, those systems now placed on hold lead to problems of sexual dysfunction, increased susceptibility to illness, lower energy and mood, and skin ailments.

In the brain, cortisol being triggered day after day leads to excessive amounts which are so toxic “that it kills and injures the brain cells by the billions…and is one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease”, according to Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation. Excess cortisol also robs the brain of its only source of fuel – glucose. Lack of fuel causes problems with the brain’s messengers, making it difficult for you to concentrate.

To prevent a chronic stress response which creates negative consequences in the body and mind, stress needs to be managed well. The problem today is that although there are few true life threatening situations, the fast-paced, overly stimulating environment of modern life makes the nervous system feel that it is under attack. And this means the sympathetic nervous system – that part which responds to danger with the fight or flight response – becomes constantly engaged.

The goal to managing stress and keeping the body and mind is to not let the sympathetic nervous system stay chronically activated but rather to activate your parasympathetic nervous system which triggers your relaxation response.

Explore these activities to engage and strengthen your relaxation response:

  • Meditation
  • Pranayama or breath exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong
  • Repetitive prayer
  • Guided audio meditations
  • Guided imagery

©2011, Jamie Durner, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner & Wellness Educator at Ayurveda Wellness in Pewaukee, WI