Stress Series: The Biology of Stress

Stress is a natural, healthy part of life. Evolutionarily, it’s a process that allows our bodies to cope with danger by engaging a cascade of biological events. Though stress was a mechanism designed to protect us from mortal danger, in modern terms our consistent levels of stress are caused by work concerns, relationship troubles, financial pressures, loss, worry, and anxiety – not generally matters of life and death.

The stress in our hectic, everyday lives places enormous pressure on our biological coping mechanisms. This type of pervasive pressure turns stress into something unhealthy and toxic to our bodies, which can have some serious negative, long-term effects. Let’s explore the biology of stress to help you understand how it may be affecting your body, along with a few recommended stress management techniques.

A Cascade of Events

When we feel stressed out, the first thing that is triggered is our brain. An emotional trigger is received and processed through our hypothalamus, which is considered to be like the command centre of the mother ship – our brain. The hypothalamus will then activate our autonomic central nervous system or ANS, along with our adrenal glands. Together, these will trigger involuntary responses and release certain hormones into our bloodstream, which cause our bodies to react.

These hormones are called adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline, as many of us know, is activated when we feel “fired up” – like after an intense rollercoaster ride, or when we’re playing sports, competing for first place. It’s released into our bloodstream, which results in a series of physiological changes – our blood starts to pump faster, causing our heart rate to increase, our muscles receive more blood for added strength and each of our senses become sharper, prepping us to fight off any danger.

If the brain continues to perceive these high levels of distress, a second hormone, cortisol, is secreted and sent throughout our body to interact with our cells in order to keep them revved up and on high alert.

Knowing When to Apply the Brakes

The problem is when our adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t know when to subside or apply the brakes. These biological stressors and reactions have evolved with us over time. Our survival would depend on these “fight or flight” responses, and then shut off excess amounts once danger had passed. However, today with the increasing demands, pressures of work and day-to-day life, our triggers and our “on” and “off” switches aren’t so black and white anymore. Simple things such as traffic jams, deadlines at work, or financial pressures can initiate the same biological reactions, which in turn, can maintain these revved up conditions all day long.

Many of us today are unable to calm these systems down. Even if our stress indicators aren’t exactly in acceleration mode, they can often be idling in the background without us even realizing it. Over time, this can result in chronic stress, which can lead to damaged blood vessels, heart attacks, and strokes, along with a variety of other dangerous health effects.

Identifying and Alleviating our Triggers

For these reasons, it is imperative to incorporate ways in which we can cope, reduce, and eliminate some of the stress we experience daily. Relaxation needs to become a routine practice. Simple techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga have proven to significantly help alleviate stress. Additionally, physical exercise helps to replenish cells and relax the body.

One of the most effective ways to alleviate and cope with stress is by combining both mental and physical exercise along with the professional guidance of your therapist in Ottawa. After all, sometimes many of us don’t even recognize what our triggers are, and the assistance of a therapist can help to guide us through.