The Physiological & Hormonal Impact of Stress

We’re likely all familiar with the concept of stress

Familiar with the feeling of it and the effects

But it’s not just about mental and emotional – it’s useful to understand the physiological and hormonal effects

Stress is a survival response – when there is a threat real or perceived body goes into stress mode

Some stress is useful for performance and we individually have different optimum levels for performance.

An experienced actor about to take the stage to a full house will experience nerves. This stress. translates into peak performance on stage.

If you were pushed onto stage in front of an audience right now and told to perform, chances are the stress would lead to a less than optimum performance.

So individually we have differing levels of stress tolerance and will experience different situations in which stress can be useful, or a hinderance.

However, for all of us, over the long terms consistently raised stress has major negative effects on our wellbeing

The problem is that in evolutionary terms we are not capable of responding differently to real or perceived – so that idiot you argue with on facebook is giving the same stress response as if you’d just seen a tiger running free….

Think about road rage – how angry and shaky you get – yet most of the time the incident is mere seconds and then gone – yet the stress persists – often for hours.

We’re designed this way in case the threat was not dealt with effectively the first time.

Our threat centre is in the oldest part of the brain the amygdala which is ruled by emotion. When stressed this threat centre takes over and overrules the newer reasoning area.

This is why in stressful incidents like a crime or an accident, witnesses will often have differing views of what happened – one effect of stress is to narrow focus and confuse critical thinking.

Just to add to the mix, hormones are chemical messengers from the limbic system and neurotransmitters are from the nervous system and they’ll interact and affect each other too.

I’m going to focus on sustained low to medium level stress for this article, but if you operate at high stress levels continuously and/or you have a trauma event, your adrenalin and norandrenline can keep firing, resulting in adrenal fatigue, which is the next step up if daily stressors aren’t dealt with effectively.

So what are the effects of cortisol the stress hormone if it stays raised?

Well, its useful to understand that hormones don’t act in isolation, they have a cascade effect and when one changes it will affect another.

Let’s take a look…

In the case of cortisol it shares the same mother hormone pregenolone as our sex hormones. What this means is that if our pregenolone is being utilised for cortisol there is less available for production of oestrogen and testosterone.

So, as cortisol stays raised, estrogen and testosterone are lowered. We’re likely to experience weight gain, increased abdominal fat, fatigue, loss of libido, loss of concentration…

As we gain weight you will notice the effects of increased levels of ghrelin (appetite stimulating hormone) and insulin (hormone needed to lower blood glucose levels), as well as decreased leptin (the fullness hormone) levels. Meaning we’re likely to eat more, particularly sugary and starchy carbs- see how the negative cycle starts to gather momentum?

Remember we mentioned neurotransmitters? If you’re stressed this can tip into depression with means you likely have low levels of endorphins, which are feel-good neurohormones.

So you see stress can have quite the impact and many elements are outside of our direct control.

What can you do?

Here’s 5 practical, actionable tips….

Minimise stressors in your life – negative news, negative social media, even negative friends and situations.
Practice stress management techniques – meditation (it doesn’t need to be still, it could be running or another practice) and getting out into nature. Japanese studies show that immersion in a natural environment lowers cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
Exercise – exercise release endorphins boosting mood and alleviating stress. It’s nature’s anti-depressant.
Practice individual spirituality – cultivate a practice that connect you with your self – like affirmations, gratitude, morning grounding and positivity rituals
Seek support, find feel good groups to be part of on line community to feel supported. Our evolutionary need to feel part of something is strong, as is our need to feel understood and heard.

These are just some of the things we work on with our clients (both individual and corporate) to help them reduce stress, feel more positive, be healthier, be happier and connect with a purpose and each other.

If you’d like to talk to us about individual coaching or our corporate wellness programmes please get in touch.

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