Being fired… Witnessing a crime… Getting bad medical news… Finding out you’re pregnant… The computer getting a virus… Coming into (big) money… Getting engaged… The laundry coming out pink… Being offered a new job… The pet running away… Getting lost in the woods… Losing the wallet… If any of these stressors have happened to you, then you are already very familiar with the way your body reacts to stress. Knowledge is power, and being familiar with our natural body reactions is conducive to a better handling of the situation. But what happens exactly at the moment of stress? Take the jump and find out.
At these times of immediate distress, our resource meter is likely to show a temporary overloading of demands (Now what? What do I do? Who do I tell? Can anyone help? Is this good or bad? How bad is it? Is it lost forever? Can it be fixed? What if it cannot be?) being put on available resources (the belief and reality of whether I can handle this), which creates a predictable reaction. It is the imbalance between the perceived demands of the situation and the perceived availability of coping resources that “stresses” our system, very much like the stress being put on a metal by a bending or twisting force.
The reaction begins with the activation of several brain structures that together form the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, or HPA. This system first activates the release of glucocorticoids , or excitatory steroid hormones. These hormones include cortisol, the primary stress hormone in humans.
The HPA system then releases a set of neurotransmitters known as the catecholamines, which include dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).
The catecholamines have three important functions:
1. They mobilize the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that triggers the vitally important emotional response of fear or alarm.
2. They send a message to the hippocampus, another part of the limbic system, that what is occurring is important and that the emotional experience of it should be stored in long-term memory.
3. They reduce or momentarily suppress activity in parts of the brain associated with short-term memory, concentration, and rational thinking. This suppression allows us to react very quickly to a stressful situation, but it also lowers ability to deal with complex social or intellectual tasks that may be part of addressing situation.
Prompted by the release of these excitatory hormones and within a few fractions of a second, heart beat and blood pressure rise and breathing becomes more rapid, which allows the lungs to take in more oxygen. This highly oxygenated blood flows to the muscles, lungs, and brain at a speed that may increase by 300–400% of normal. This increased flow ensures that tissues and cells are adequately supplied and that the body is ready to meet whatever challenges presents itself at that moment, be it the woolly mammoth, the oncoming bus, or the pink laundry.
The spleen releases more blood cells into the circulation, which further increases the blood’s ability to transport oxygen. The immune system redirects white blood cells to the skin, bone marrow, and lymph nodes; which are the areas where injury or infection is most likely.
At the same time, body systems that are nonessential to meet a physical threat are temporarily shut down. The skin becomes cool and sweaty as blood is drawn away from it toward the heart and muscles. The mouth becomes dry, and the digestive system slows down.
This physical transformation is not entirely unpleasant. The high mobilization of energy and the flow of excitatory hormones that goes with it can feel quite empowering, so much so that a roller coaster ride or a bungee cord jump are sought out as a way to artificially induce the same high, by creating a mock dangerous situation to which the body has no alternative but to react.
On the other hand, heart palpitations, profuse sweating, stomach cramps, muscle tension, flushing, and the inability to think rationally are the unpleasant effects of a mobilization that often has no outlet and no real reason to be, as when the threat is purely psychological in nature.
Knowing that the body has no choice but to react in this way and rolling with it, and being able to predict that the physical mobilization will eventually subside on its own, can help avoid the stress of stress and insure that no crucial decisions are made while in this somewhat irrational state.