Our first stress response is always an acute stress response, I call this SAM-The Match because it ignites as quickly as striking a match and all going well burns out as quickly as a match.
It releases nor-adrenaline and adrenaline putting our minds and bodies in full alert mode. When the stressor has passed our brain activates The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS); I call this The Brake because it stops the release of nor-adrenaline and adrenaline and restores the body to a state of calm and counterbalance allowing it to rest, restore, relax and repair.
But when we block The Brake (PNS) our brain triggers our chronic stress response; The Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis). I call this The Candle because it burns for long periods, inflaming organs, shutting down vital health systems and increasing the risk of physical and psychological illnesses. The Match has lit The Candle which will burn until we resolve the stressor(s) causing it to burn.
The main hormones in chronic stress response are ACh (acetylcholine); helps adrenaline and nor-adrenaline do their jobs. CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormones) and ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic); support the HPA Axis. Adrenaline keeps us nervous, agitated, irritable and argumentative. Nor-adrenaline keeps us aware, awake, focused on our survival while re-directing blood away from nonessential areas leaving important health systems suppressed. In small doses Cortisol, a strong steroid, is a lifesaver but high levels keep us in full attack mode, revved up and focused on our stressors; it also increases all physiological changes triggered by SAM-The Match.
The following are some physiological changes caused by high cortisol levels.
Immune system is suppressed allowing germs, bacteria and viruses; including coronavirus, colds and flues in; we get sicker quicker and for longer. Decreased blood in the brain blurs our thinking; we cannot concentrate, we become less interested in listening and reasoning and can become emotional. The brain is directed to focus only on the stressor and how it affects our lives. We have trouble focusing on small tasks, we’re not interested in explanations, details or information. Our memory recall is severely decreased, we cannot learn, we forget things. This is why we find we go blank when doing exams, presentations, etc. The brain is in attack mode, focused on stressors and if a stressor is failure, that’s what we’re going to get.
Increases in blood pressure accelerates heart rate; long-term this can lead to hypertension, heart disease, heart attack and stroke. The heart works very hard to pump cortisol through the bloodstream which can cause hardening of arteries, increasing plaque formation, thickening blood vessels resulting in congestive heart failure and more. The liver filters toxins from the blood aids digestion, regulates blood sugars, cholesterol levels and helps fight infection and disease. High cortisol levels disrupt all these functions. Suppressed digestion can cause gastric and stomach problems; ingestion, gas and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux, gastritis and stomach ulcers. Overeating for stress relief can lead to weight gain, obesity and increased abdominal fat while under-eating leads to weight loss.
Too much cortisol for long periods can cause blurred vision, bad eyesight or blindness. Too much glucose (blood sugars) causes diabetes, which in turn causes bad eyesight, blurred vision and eventually blindness. Increases in blood-glucose levels can take six times longer to return to normal when we’re in chronic stress response. The longer our blood sugar stays elevated, the more insulin our bodies will produce. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, it controls blood glucose levels and prevents hyperglycaemia; when our cells become resistant to insulin glucose stays in our blood, raising our blood sugar levels.
Cortisol ages skin, especially in women and is linked to breaking down collagen and elastin in the skin; it also disrupts our circadian rhythm and breaks down the skins structure causing skin irritation, acne, eczema, hives, psoriasis and alopecia (hair loss: hair and skin come from the same growth follicle). Veins in skin constrict causing us to feel cold. Many skin disorders are rooted in our psyche, which is severely affected by cortisol.
With most blood in our arms and legs, energized by adrenaline, cortisol and glucose our muscles tense up, we feel the need to lash out, we get agitated and feel the need to act (run), we get aggressive and feel the need to fight. This is why some of us get headaches, pain in the neck, shoulders and back and some of us cannot sit or stand still. Cortisol is the hormone keeping us awake, preventing the production of melatonin; the sleep hormone. Production of melatonin starts around 8pm and continues until around 3am; 4am is our lowest physical point of the day when our liver regenerates. Our liver regenerates when we sleep. The lack of sleep and proper liver regeneration can result in physical and psychological illnesses. High cortisol levels can have devastating effects on male and female sex drive and the male erection.
Long-term, cortisol causes inflammation; every physical illness is caused by inflammation and every psychological illness is caused by high levels of cortisol that eventually wear body and mind down, causing burnout.
Like our physiology and behaviour, our psychology is also in attack mode, we’re not programmed to smile or be nice when we’re under attack. We don’t cooperate, we can become aggressive, hostile, anxious, anti-social and more. We can experience fear, depression, anger, burnout, impulsivity and in severe cases episodic violence.
In chronic stress response our brain triggers increased hormone levels; including a strong steroid to adjust our physiology, psychology and behaviour so we can survive a stressor. Which is worse the stressor or cortisol? No stressor = no cortisol.
We reduce cortisol levels; our chronic stress response, by reducing our stressors and activating dopamine the “feel better hormone” by switching on The Brake with deep belly breathing, relaxing, eating properly, sleeping well, walking, laughing, smiling, listening to music and seeking a stress counsellor when necessary. The quickest way is hugging someone we love. 😊
By Joan Maycock
Joan Maycock MSc Health Psychologist, BSc Psychologist, Counsellor Mediator, Consultant, Researcher, Trainer and Stress and Burnout Programme Developer. After living in the Netherlands, I moved to Portugal last year. My focus is on developing stress education programmes designed to get everyone thinking about reducing, preventing and managing stress and burnout.
915 793 592 | [email protected]