The chemistry of stress–what’s actually happening in our bodies

You’re in a meeting (or a class), still waking up with your coffee, when BOOM–you’re asked to speak when you’re not prepared. You know your heart starts racing, but what is actually happening in your body behind the scenes?

Your body and brain work together to keep you in balance during stress.

When you receive a stress trigger, immediately, your amygdala (which processes emotions) absorbs all the sensory info around you and says, “Yep! That’s a stress trigger!” It sends an alarm to your hypothalamus, which then activates your nervous system, setting in motion a systematic release of hormones and chemicals to get your blood pumping. The point is to give you everything you need to fight, flee, or freeze to stay protected from the threat. Think of your hypothalamus as the person standing behind the podium in mission control.

This process happens so fast, that we could act before our brain is even finished processing.

Read on to see what happens if the stress hangs around awhile.

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More chemistry–what’s going on with our bodies during chronic stress

If the threat or stressor is still there after the first surge of hormones subsides, the hypothalamus kicks in the second system–the HPA axis. This helps the body stay pumped via more hormones (like cortisol) until the threat passes. That’s when the parasympathetic system (the rest and digest system of our bodies) says a big WOOSAH and calms the body back down. Khan Academy has a pretty great video explaining the process. 

Chronic stress keeps the HPA axis activated.

Chronic stress, however, keeps that HPA axis activated–no Woosah. And that’s when we start seeing negative health effects like chronic inflammation, cardiovascular dysfunction, etc. 

Never fear: we can learn to activate the relaxation response through mindfulness, social support, physical activity, and more. Here are some more coping skills you can use. For now, take a deep breath–WOOSAH!

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