The Stress Alarm

Our biological stress response operates the same whether threats are real or perceived. Here’s how your system reacts.

A series of burnt matches

The stress response can be activated by stressors that are concrete (such as not having enough money to pay your bills) or abstract (persistent perfectionism). But the physiological reaction to both types of trigger is the same. The process looks like this:

  1. You notice a danger, which might be an immediate threat (a car speeding toward you) or a perceived one (your boss gives you a funny look).
  2. This perception triggers your amygdala, the area of your brain associated with self-preservation memories. These memories helped our ancestors avoid threats, such as plants that had once made them sick. Today, it helps us prepare for daily situations that we know to be stressful.
  3. Your amygdala sends an alarm message to your hypothalamus, which passes it along to your pituitary gland, which alerts your adrenal glands that they need to pump out the hormone cortisol.
  4. Cortisol acts to protect your body: It elevates your blood pressure so that if you bleed copiously you won’t go into shock. It mobilizes your immune system to fight infection, and dumps glucose into your bloodstream for an immediate surge of energy, along with insulin from your pancreas to mop up that glucose once the crisis is over.
  5. The threat message signals your medulla (which controls involuntary functions) to send an adrenaline burst. This jump-starts your heart rate, dilates your pupils, and makes you hyperalert. You are now primed to escape, subdue, and survive a mortal threat.

This article was excerpted from “Reset Your Stress Response” which was published in Experience Life magazine.

, is an award-winning functional-medicine physician and herbalist with practices in West Stockbridge, Mass., and New York City. Her next book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.

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