Stress and Health

As mentioned on the Stress Relief Tips page, stress is a physiological/biochemical process that alerts the body to potential danger, and provides the energy spike to deal with it. Our brains and bodies are designed to tolerate short bursts of this chemical state, not prolonged episodes, nor regularly recurring bursts (i.e. day after day after day . . . sound familiar?).

Remember, discomfort motivates us to do something in order to relieve it (the discomfort WANTS to be relieved); this means that we can use stress signals to motivate us to make things better! What this means, however, is that stress, by definition, must create an uncomfortable experience that wants to be relieved. So, our body uses spikes in chemicals like adrenaline, testosterone, cortisol, etc. to create this discomfort; and this chemical cocktail can become quite toxic on our bodies if they persist in these spiked levels for too long. In other words, they burn out our body–for our purposes, this starts with the neurons in the brain that help us be in our Preferred Personality Type. When these pathways are burnt out, we are relegated to less conscious pathways called the Shadow Personality, which is the obnoxious version of our opposite personality type. Read more about the Myers-Briggs to see what I’m talking about.

But the damage does not stop at us becoming obnoxious; it can become overtly physical: We might become sick, sleepless, tired, our muscles may hurt, conditions like arthritis may flare up.

Let’s learn a little more about how this happens, and what to do about it. To start, let me point out that having experienced stress in the past actually causes you to react STRONGER to it moving forward–so it behooves us to manage it effectively. . . starting right now.

The biochemistry and neuroscience of stress

(for more details about these terms, see the Psychology Today article here, and the NIMH article here).

Cortisol – Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol compromises the immune system.  Elevated levels of corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) are likely responsible for increased risk of getting sick when stressed out. It would make sense that if left unchecked, stress will force you to slow down by increasing your chances of getting sick, thereby forced to stay in bed while the body attempts to recover.

Cortisol also breaks down muscle, fat, bone, and other tissues to be turned into sugar (via the liver). The self-digested body (turned into sugar) gives the energy for vital organs to use during crisis.  So the metaphor of feeling ‘eaten alive by stress’ or that stress is ‘eating you from the inside out’ makes a lot of sense!

Epinephrine – Epinephrine (adrenaline) is secreted by the adrenal glands that sit atop the kidneys; it begins a process of stimulation that is responsible for the WOOSH of energy we feel when startled, or downright scared. It can also be damaging to blood cells and vessels. It triggers platelets to release copious amounts of ATP, which can trigger a heart attack or stroke by narrowing blood vessels suddenly and decreasing available oxygen to vital organs like the heart (heart attack, or myocardial infarction) and brain (stroke, or ‘brain-attack’).

We’ve already discussed the impact of stress on the immune system: it slows it down, eventually damaging it. A compromised immune system can increase risk of catching colds, the flu, etc. and even raise your cancer risk.

Norepinephrine – Norepinephrine’s most basic function is to mobilize the brain and body for action. It accomplishes this through a variety of mechanisms:

  • Increases arousal and alertness
  • Increases vigilance
  • Enhances formation and retrieval of memory
  • Focuses attention
  • Increases restlessness and anxiety.
  • Increases heart rate and blood pressure to increase blood flow to necessary muscles for fight-flight-freeze
  • Triggers the release of glucose for energy
  • Reduces blood flow to the gastrointestinal system and promotes voiding of the bladder and large intestine. This is so the blood can go to where it is better needed: muscles that are used for fighting-fleeing-freezing. Voiding of the bladder and intestine literally “lightens the load” that we would otherwise have to carry in flight or fight mode. Obviously this is where the saying, “Scared the **** out of me.” You may laugh, but there is a primitive, very necessary reason for this!

So, thank you norepinephrine!

Dopamine – Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is typically associated with the brain’s reward system that directs Operant Conditioning (changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response).

Related to the chemistry of stress, it initiates the production of epinephrine (adrenaline), which gives us the rush we experience when startled.

It also is associated with motivation, and with psychomotor speed within the Central Nervous System (CNS–Brain and Spinal Cord). Since the basic function of stress is to protect us from real or perceived danger, being quick is a necessity.

ACTH – Also secreted by the pituitary gland, Adrenocorticotrophic Hormone (ACTH) slows the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killer. Anybody who has ever been a sports injury that resulted in heightened pain awareness knows exactly what this is all about.  ACTH also increases serotonin levels beyond what is healthy, which has been recently tied to violent outbursts.

It is also involved in the production of the stress-hormone Cortisol.

Adrenocorticotropin – More information below. It stimulates the adrenal glands which compromise 1/3 of the major stress triad: the HPA.

Brain structures and stress

We have all seen pictures of a bat being flung into the crowd; we see people near the bat exhibiting the classic “Flinch Response:” Arms raised to protect the command center (brain), eyes going from wide-open to collect data, then clinched tight to protect the eyes, teeth bared (a primate reaction to fear–bearing the teeth), and turning/leaning away from the threat. This is a response regulated by the amygdala, an almond shaped/sized gland deep in the brain that triggers this reflexive protection in short blasts. When the amygdala is over-stimulated chronically though, we get major problems in the form of chronic stress–we may begin to perceive almost everything as a threat. This over-stimulation can be from abuse, violence, prolonged uncertainty in childhood, stressful home, etc.

The Stress Triad of glands

Hypothalamus (1 of 3) – The first structure involved in the stress response, the hypothalamus is a part of the oldest part of the brain . . . an area responsible for our very survival. It is in direct communication with both the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. Between them, they are the main 3 structures involved in stress (The Triad): Together they make up the Hypothalamicpituitary axis (HPA), which regulates blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, sleep patterns, hunger and thirst, and reproductive functions, etc.

The hypothalamus releases 2 signaling hormones:

  • Ones that cause other glands to release other hormones
  • Ones that stop other glands from releasing hormones

Pituitary gland (2 of 3) – The 2nd of the triad HPA is erroneously called the “master gland,” the pituitary gland is directly connected to the hypothalamus gland. The hypothalamus tells the pituitary gland what to do: What to release, and how much to release. The pituitary glad regulates growth, sex, skin color, bone length, and muscle strength (which is why it’s often called the master gland). It also releases adrenocorticotropin, a hormone that stimulates the adrenal glands (the 3rd part of the HPA).

Adrenal glands (3 or 3) – We can consider these the final stop of the stress triad. The adrenals create and release the real stress hormones:

  • Dopamine
  • Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline),
  • Norepinephrine (noradrenaline),
  • Cortisol

We’ve already talked a bit about just how important these chemicals are to survival, and just how damaging they can be when over-produced due to stress. Their impact on your health cannot be overstated:

  • Even a slight overproduction of dopamine can constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure, elevating risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Changes in levels of epinephrine may precipitate diabetes, or asthma, by constricting airways in the lungs.
  • A decrease in cortisol production may contribute to obesity, heart disease, or osteoporosis. An increase can lead women to take on male traits like facial hair and bulkier muscle development. For the guys, it can contribute baldness (something high testosterone levels are also connected to). Excessive cortisol also may kill off brain cells crucial for memory; as we age, you can see the potential impact on demential and Alzheimers.

The adrenal glands are also home of the most familiar of all stress reactions, the “fight-or-flight” response. I should mention that far too often forgotten “freeze” response . . . so it should be the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” response. When we think there is any kind of real or perceived danger, the hypothalamus secretes cortisol-releasing factor, which tells the pituitary gland to produce adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). ACTH causes cortisol and epinephrine to flood from the adrenal glands. The dramatic boost of cortisol and epinephrine causes an elevation in blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure. . . precisely what is needed for a sudden fight or flight (or freeze . . . try standing completely still and you’ll see how much brain/body power is needed for that as well).

The physical manifestation of stress

Everybody has their own unique stress symptoms, but in general, most of experience at least a few of these physical symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Sleep problems (may be sleeping too little, difficulty staying asleep, or sleeping too much)
  • Tense muscles, especially in the back, shoulders and head
  • Joint pain
  • Clumsiness
  • Prone to illness
  • Changes in appetite and eating patterns (can be either an increase, or decrease in amount; may also be a change in what is eaten . . . usually a shift towards carbohydrates like bread, pasta, cereal and sugary snacks)

Many of these physical symptoms are directly related to the emotional experience of anxiety as well. Think about calling that guy or girl that you really liked and your stomach got tied up in knots. Or worrying about a test to the point of getting a headache.

How stress helps

Most people can easily see that stress is a warning system, a survival mechanism, a motivator that helps us know when to do something different in order to survive or remain safe. So, in a nutshell, it helps us to maintain our safety, security and a state of balance (homeostasis).

What’s not so intuitive is that it can also be a enjoyable; it can feel rather good! We’ve discussed how it saves our lives (and how too much of it can hurt our health).

What could possibly be enjoyable? If you enjoy roller-coaster rides, hang-gliding, or sky-diving, you’ll find the stress reaction as what we call “exhilaration.” Also, there is something called “Positive Stress.” Think about winning the lottery, getting married, or even getting a promotion. While all of these experiences are undoubtedly positive, they each engage the stress response, but because of the context, they typically are not associated with the harmful effects of chronic stress.

How stress hurts

The same chemical cocktail that creates the discomfort that motivates us to take corrective action also becomes toxic when it hangs around for too long. There have been numerous research studies that have looked at this, and that have shown the impact of stress on both our physical and emotional health.

Looking at the impact of the psychological side, imagine that you have been under a great deal of pressure all day at work and you haven’t had a chance to decompress before heading home (remember Bob?). . . you get cut-off on MoPac or I-35 (stressors in their own right!); you are FAR more likely to engage in some form of Road-Rage, which drastically increases the probability of you causing an accident, and getting hurt, or worse. Clearly, the psychological state of mind can directly contribute to not just a compromised immune system, but actually to physical injury resulting from bad decisions.

Even if you don’t engage in Road-Rage, you may not pay as much attention as is needed during rush hour traffic, and you may change lanes, crashing into a car in your blind-spot. I call this being psychologically/emotionally/intellectually etc. clumsy. Being clumsy in your head will lead to being physically clumsy as well: falling up the stairs, tripping over yourself, etc.

What to do about it

Well, put simply, click here for stress relief tips; remember though, what helps one person may complicate stress for another person in the same situation. This is simply differences in personality types and the different needs each has.

Generally speaking, a healthy life style is a great place to everybody to start:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise regularly
  • Practice healthy sleeping habits (sleep hygiene)
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Keep in touch with your Dr. about any vitamins and supplements you may need
  • Know yourself and what works well for you in terms of stress prevention and stress relief