Stress Awareness Month is used to raise awareness and challenge the common themes associated with stress. Last year, we focused on how stress can affect us in the workplace. This year, we want to focus on communicating and supporting you to understand the biological facts behind why we feel this emotion and the importance behind it. Stress can get a pretty bad rep, so we’re breaking down the different stages of stress in our bodies and how it activates our ‘fight or flight’.
When we think about stress, we can picture anything from heavy workloads, our car breaking down, or unexpected money troubles. We know the feeling of a pounding heart, adrenaline, and panic all too well. But we aren’t so good at envisioning what hormones and bodily functions alert our bodies to react this way, and why?
Stress is commonly associated with negative emotions that make us feel like we aren’t in control, but it isn’t actually always a bad thing. Without stress, we wouldn’t experience the rush of energy that enables us to focus our attention on responding to a situation, otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’, dating all the way back to our caveman ancestors. If it wasn’t for stress, we would have been wiped out by sabre-toothed tigers and other dangerous threats long ago! Although, thankfully, our regular states of stress aren’t always quite as deadly these days, our brains still release the same hormones needed to apply pressure. These hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Things can start to take a turn for the worst if these hormones remain in a state of stress for longer than necessary, leaving us overwhelmed and struggling to cope.
Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine?!
Fear not, we weren’t going to just name drop these three words without an explanation! So, let’s get into a basic description of what these three hormones are and how together they can make our sympathetic nervous systems do backflips…
Adrenaline – You may already know a fair amount about adrenaline, it’s a regularly used hormone for the daredevils amongst us. When released into our blood stream, adrenaline triggers our fight and flight response and is highly responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. It is a healthy response that can help you react quickly to potentially dangerous situations, such as swerving from a car collision, or the rush of energy known as the ‘adrenaline rush’ you may feel before the first plunge of the rollercoaster.
Cortisol – Cortisol can take more time to kick in than adrenaline. After the body recognises a threat, it sends a message to the brain, which sends a message to the pituitary gland, which sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol into our bloodstream! Not to set off your FOMO, but isn’t it crazy how many conversations our bodies are capable of having without us even knowing? Cortisol is important because it prioritises our bodily functions necessary for entering fight or flight mode, such as our brain and energy levels, whilst equally supressing others such as our immune system, growth processes, and digestive system in the moment.
Norepinephrine – Now, this is the hormone that may have the best of us scratching our heads. But, in contrast from its mouthful of a name, it’s actually quite simple to understand. Norepinephrine increases the blood flow towards our skeletal muscle in order to help us escape whatever stressful situation we have got ourselves into. It does this by shifting the blood flow away from less important areas for the meantime, such as our skin. Basically, norepinephrine increases our alertness, arousal, and reaction time. Depending on your situation, it can take norepinephrine hours or days to return back to a normal state.
Now that’s all cleared up, we hope that you have a better understanding of the stages your body goes through to produce stress, and how ultimately it is your body’s way of making sure you have everything you need to protect yourself. However, if you feel yourself slipping into feelings of stress way too often, we highly recommend speaking to a medical professional. This month is packed full of educational free resources, guides, and information all about combating stress, visit sites such as stress.org.uk and mentalhealth.org.uk to seek the help you need.