Most of us have been challenged lately and may feel our lives are spinning out of control. Information overload, gloomy news reports, climate concerns, financial struggles, and health issues (particularly COVID-19) are all contributing factors to chronic stress. This continuous stress is keeping the organs that manage our stress (the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenals) working overtime.
If that’s not enough, even minor hassles like traffic and running late are enough to keep us feeling constantly on edge. Because these days stress is not just about the big stuff. Stress is part of daily life at the baseline level. And these daily stresses wreak havoc throughout our bodies.
Think fast. What is one major stressor that you experience every day? Many of us deal with multiple events each day, which causes our neck to tense up, our heart to race, and our breathing to become shallow.
Common Everyday Stressors
traffic ● tech overload ● late to pick up children at school ● managing a chronic disease ● unpaid bills ● deadlines ● overextended with events ● safety ● planning meals ● aging ● co-workers ● children’s schedules ● toxic environment ● politics, and the list goes on and on.
While our body is designed to release hormones as a reaction to stress, this original primal purpose was as a protective measure for extreme life-threatening events.
For example, if we were running from a tiger these physiologic changes in our body would help us to escape danger. Enhanced hearing, mental alertness, dilated pupils, and increased sugar and heart rate would aid us in saving ourselves. Did you know our blood clotting even increases in case of an injury?
And even though our daily stress may feel like a tiger is behind us, we are not responding the way that our bodies believe we should. Our chronic stress signals the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to take the controls. They send a message to the adrenals to flood our body. So, our body ends up flooded with adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
The results of a recent Gallup poll determined that:
- Americans among the most stressed in the world.
- Nearly half (45%) felt worried a lot.
- More than one in five (22%) felt angry a lot.
- Women are more stressed-out than men.
- In 2018, a third of US-based respondents visited a doctor for something stress-related.(1)
Do I suffer from chronic stress? Answer the following questions.
- Do you have difficulty falling or staying asleep?
- Do you get easily annoyed and experience frequent angry outbursts?
- Are you nervous, fidgety, or jittery?
- Do you experience frequent headaches?
- Are you finding yourself needing to drink more to relax?
- Do you often feel exhausted?
- Do you experience frequent stomach upsets?
If the answer was yes to several of these questions, you might be more stressed than you realize, and you may frequently be flooding your body with stress hormones.
Meet the Three Major Stress Hormones (chemical messengers)
The major three stress hormones that the hypothalamus and pituitary gland control are cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.
Adrenaline – This hormone was intended to prepare us to handle a dangerous situation. When our brain senses danger, it prompts the release of adrenaline, which is instant. This adrenaline binds to receptors on liver cells to make glucose that will give us a burst of energy. It also binds to muscle cells in the lungs, causing us to breathe faster and stimulates cells in the heart, causing our heart to beat faster. This is effective in giving us the boost to “fight or flight.”
However, with chronic stress, we may be continually releasing adrenaline, which causes us to have a constant increased heart rate, higher body temperature, sweating, and shallow respiration.
Noradrenaline – While adrenaline is explicitly released as a reaction to stress or danger, noradrenaline is continuously released into circulation at low levels to increase alertness and speed reaction time. However, during stress, it is released at higher levels causing anxiety and high blood pressure.
Cortisol – This hormone is not instant, like adrenaline. It takes a few minutes to release into your body and then stays elevated for several hours. Those of us that are flooded with cortisol have more than a few things to think about. The list of problems that cortisol can cause is long. Here is the shortlist.
- suppress the immune system
- increase blood pressure
- raise blood sugar
- cause acne breakouts
- contribute to weight-gain (particularly around the abdomen)
- cause frequent headaches
- create concentration problems
- cause severe fatigue
Are you concerned that you may be overloaded with cortisol? Make an appointment for an evaluation and we will determine if a cortisol test may be right for you. The results of the salvia test take about two weeks to determine.
When these three stress hormones flood our bodies, then we may experience a panic attack.
How Serious is Stress?
We need to be cognitive of how we feel and learn to pinpoint our stress triggers.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman says, “Stress is underpinned by particular hormones that circulate through the body and the brain. … They eat away at brain tissue. “What’s new to be stressed about is that stress is literally chewing miniature holes in your brain. Stress eats holes in your brain.”
I’d say that stress is a very serious issue. However, the good news is that lifestyle changes, breathing exercises, meditation, exercise, and healthy food are all excellent steps to alleviate your stress and get you moving toward good health.
Ways to Manage or Prevent a Panic Attack
The mid or limbic brain is emotional and where the “gut feeling” lives. When given the information from the primal brain, this area uses an emotional response to react to a situation with “Fight, Flight or Freeze.” If the amygdala senses danger, it triggers adrenaline and cortisol to be released from your adrenal glands to your bloodstream, and this is one reason why chronic stress is harmful to your health.
The amygdala has the power to cause us to overreact, be anxious, and irrationally fearful. Additionally, it can manifest an entire host of physical symptoms. When the amygdala activates, it sends a message to the adrenals to pump adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream, cause our heart to race, and deprive our prefrontal cortex of oxygen, which causes us to think irrationally.
When we are fearful or angry our amygdala increases in size and becomes stronger.
An amygdala hijack, commonly known as a panic attack, can be frightening. Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as: “A sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.”
- Research shows that the amygdala decreases brain cell volume after a mindfulness exercise or practice. That’s the way to get him; shrink him down.
- Practicing pranayama (breathing exercises) will return oxygen to the prefrontal cortex and get you thinking clearly again.
- A focused activity like chanting is calming and vibratory and will signal the amygdala that the danger is averted.
- Positive thoughts and affirmations affect how you feel; when your feelings get under control, your amygdala will as well.
- When your amygdala flares up, your body expects you to react with a “Fight or Flight” response. Physical activity is what your body expects, and exercise will burn that extra adrenaline out of the body.
- It may be helpful to take magnesium daily and try calming herbal teas like chamomile and lavender.
- Close your eyes and visualize a soothing setting. Make sure to include every little detail – the sounds, the smells, and all the visual descriptive. Here is an example:
- Put your attention on relaxing the base of your spine at your root chakra and think of the color red. Imagine a big red sun is setting as the day ends. You are swaying in a comfortable hammock on the water’s edge. As you watch, the colors fade to orange. As you rock, your abdomen totally relaxes.