What is stress? While it’s a fairly abstract term, most of us would probably say that we can recognize it when we experience it – it’s a feeling of anxiousness, an inability to relax and the obsessive concern that something bad is imminently going to happen. That’s stress and almost all of us would also explain it as something that we don’t enjoy and would like to avoid.
But what is stress biologically? Here the answer is a little more difficult to come across but ultimately it comes down to neurotransmitters and hormones.
Specifically it comes down to three neurotransmitters and hormones: cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine.
How Cortisol, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine Work as Stress Hormones
These three chemicals are neurotransmitters that get released into the brain when we encounter a situation that we find innately stressful. If you were walking down the stress when someone jumped out in-front of you with a gun, you would be flooded with norepinephrine and epinephrine (synonymous with noradrenaline and adrenaline) which would trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to increase and your muscles to contract. Meanwhile, cortisol would make sure that you felt alert and switched on and this in turn would ensure that you could respond quickly to problems.
Stress hormones are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, in the right circumstances stress hormones are very important in helping us to become alert and aware and thus react to any situation we might be in. If a lion jumps out in front of you then you want to have that surge of adrenaline.
At the same time, cortisol is also actually produced when we wake up first thing in the morning and is one of the hormones responsible for helping us to get rid of brain fog as our brain and body ‘switches on’.
Side Effects of Stress Hormones
Unfortunately though, many of us these days are subjected to ongoing chronic stress and this means that we are walking around with high levels of stress hormones a lot of the time. This is when the health problems start as stress hormones have numerous unwanted side effects. These include: increased appetite, weight gain, heart strain, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, irritability, low mood and depression among others.
How to Control Stress Hormones
The question is then: what can you do about this? How can you go about getting your stress hormones under control so that they don’t cause these unwanted side effects?
There are numerous different strategies you can use but essentially it comes down to understanding the way that the brain works and when and why it releases the neurochemicals it does.
Essentially then, it is best to think of your brain as a web of interconnected neurons. This web is known as your connectome and it fires when you experience certain phenomena – whether that’s direct experience or recall.
Either way, your experience causes the related neuron to fire which in turn creates the experience of something happening in your brain. Based on the other associations that you have formed with that thing happening, your brain will then think of this thing as being ‘bad’ or ‘good’, ‘important’ or ‘not important’ and so on.
As a result, it will then produce certain neurochemicals in a bid to ensure that you react appropriately to the situation.
One way to avoid stress hormones is to avoid stressful situations – then you won’t have those neurons firing that you associate with stress and the stress isn’t produced.
Although that’s not entirely true. As you know, you can easily be stressed without actually having whatever it is that’s causing you to be stressed right there with you. Why? Because you are still thinking about that stressful thing which is causing the neurons to fire in the same way. In other words, as far as your brain is concerned you may as well still be exposed to the ‘stressor’.
It doesn’t really matter what’s going on around you – what matters is what’s happening in your internal world.
While this is the cause of chronic stress and stress hormones for many of us though, it can also be our salvation in many ways. The key is to realize that it’s not actually stress itself that is bad for us but rather our experience of that stress.
If you can keep yourself in a stressful situation but keep your mind off that stress – by changing your focus or by changing your interpretation of the events – then you can prevent the stress hormones from being released nevertheless.
So for instance, if you’re in a stressful situation but you focus on the relaxing evening you have planned later, or you keep reminding you that the situation isn’t that bad – you will actually end up feeling much more relaxed and at ease as a result.
This happens to be the whole idea behind CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy – so if you struggle with stress hormones this can be a good solution.
Trigging Anti-Stress Hormones
Another strategy is to focus more on producing hormones that prevent stress rather than focusing on combating the ones that do.
For instance, if you produce serotonin, then you’ll get the effects of a natural antidepressant and natural anesthetic that will make you feel much happier.
How do you increase your production of serotonin? This is actually how many antidepressants work, though they can have a number of unwanted side effects. Instead then, you can rely on lifestyle changes that are all known to help trigger the release of serotonin.
Exercise is one way that you can immediately increase your production of serotonin and other endorphins. Likewise, so too can spending time with friends and family, watching comedies or doing anything altruistic.