Fight or Flight: Your Stress Response and Managing the Stress Hormones

It’s been said that stress is the ultimate epidemic of the 21st century (actual pandemic notwithstanding, of course). [1]

Between increasing work hours, financial and debt pressure, climate degradation, some of the most politically and socially challenging times we’ve ever experienced, and now a worldwide pandemic, it’s no wonder the demand for mental health services has increased dramatically. It’s safe to say we live our daily lives under a lot of stress. [2]

But, the key to tackling any problem is first understanding how it works, so today we’ll discuss an overview of the stress response, the stress hormones, common causes and symptoms of stress, and ways to relieve it. 

What is the stress response?

In short, the stress response is a network of cascading reactions in the body that trigger stress hormones to be released.

When your body perceives a stressful event, the amygdala, the part of your brain that processes fear, sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates through the nervous system to the rest of the body that danger is present—and you have to avoid it to survive. 

This signal goes to the adrenal glands, which produce the stress hormones. Receiving this distress signal, the adrenals begin to produce adrenaline, aka epinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood flow, opens up airways to take in extra oxygen, and triggers a spike in blood sugar, supplying immediate energy to the cells of the body. All of this happens in an instant to give the body the resources it needs to fight or flee from danger, sometimes before we even know what’s happening. 

If the stress response continues, the body will release cortisol, also from the adrenals, to keep us on high alert and respond to the perceived threat. This is important: even if there isn’t a real threat to your survival, your brain can’t tell the difference. If your brain even senses the slightest bit of danger, whether that’s from a dangerous predator in the wild or the “threat” of public speaking, the stress response will trigger. This is an important survival mechanism, but over time it can backfire and damage the body when stressors become chronic. [3]

Good and bad stress (eustress vs. distress)

We mostly talk about stress as a negative effect, but sometimes it can be a good thing. Mostly a stressor is seen as “good” when it gives us a reward of some kind or helps us grow more resilient. Sometimes you can even turn distress into eustress just depending on the way you mentally frame the experience. 

Good stress can look like the stress of moving into a new home, the stress of travelling, or the stress of learning a new skill, such as learning a language. There’s stress involved because you are challenging your brain and body in some way, but the results will allow you to experience growth, achievement, and success. In the vacation example, the stress of travelling actually allows you to experience the opposite—relaxation! 

It seems paradoxical, but you wouldn’t savor the reward nearly as much without undergoing the stress required to reach it. 

Distress, on the other hand, is negative stress, the kind that can, over time, lead to physical illness. Examples of distress are things like the loss of a close family member, loss of a job, or undue pressure to perform at school or work. In these cases, it’s best to have coping strategies that help you reduce stress and preserve your physical and mental health as much as possible. [4]

Your adrenal glands and the HPA axis

As we mentioned earlier, your adrenal glands are the source of your stress hormones. They are two small triangle-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys. If you’ve never had adrenal issues, you might not even know they were there; they aren’t often talked about outside of endocrine and hormone health. But they’re super important! The function of these little glands can make or break your stress resilience. 

The adrenal glands are part of a pathway called the HPA axis: the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis. This pathway signals a cascade of molecules starting from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland and finally to the adrenals in order to eventually release the glucocorticoids, our stress response hormones. [5]

With chronic stress, the HPA axis can become dysregulated, first producing too much, and then not enough of these hormones. This is also referred to as “adrenal fatigue.” Basically, HPA dysregulation is what happens when you burn out. This can also lead to imbalances with other hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. 

What are stress hormones? What are their functions and how are they different?

Here’s the deal with stress hormones. As their name would suggest, stress hormones are what control the stress response in the body. The main specific hormones include cortisol, adrenaline/epinephrine, and norepinephrine. 

Stress hormones are produced by the adrenal glands, but they also interact with the sex hormones, estrogen, progesterone, androgens, etc. No process in the body is an independent operation! 

Cortisol

Cortisol is usually the hormone we think of first when we hear the phrase “stress hormones.” In our world of chronic high stress, cortisol has become somewhat demonized. But it actually has a lot of benefits too. 

Cortisol can be anti-inflammatory and regulates digestion and the immune system, which is why steroid medications are used to treat chronic inflammatory autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis (prednisone, hydrocortisone, etc.) [6]

But, too much of a good thing causes problems, and cortisol (or any steroid medication) is no exception. High cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and cause digestive upset, among many other issues. 

Epinephrine/Adrenaline

Epinephrine and adrenaline are the same hormone, adrenaline is just the British term, while Americans tend to say epinephrine. Like cortisol, it is both an endogenous hormone in the body and used exogenously as an emergency medication. 

Epinephrine is what saves your life in an acutely dangerous situation. Let’s say you don’t notice a car coming and you start to cross the street. That rush of adrenaline is what stimulates your muscles to push you back and away from the car as soon as it enters your perception, almost before you even know what’s happening. 

While cortisol is released more slowly in a period of sustained stress, adrenaline is released in immediate response to a threat in order to save your life. [7

Norepinephrine

Norepinephrine is similar to epinephrine/adrenaline, and works with it in response to stress. It is made both in the adrenal glands and the sympathetic nervous system. It increases blood pressure to ensure proper blood circulation as well as increases alertness, memory, and focus in response to danger. [8]

What causes stress?

Maybe the more accurate question today is, what doesn’t cause stress?

In our modern world, we are constantly surrounded by stress. Looming work deadlines, raising families, even the simple process of taking care of our bodies and minds can seem stressful. 

According to the American Institute of Stress, the most common causes of stress are: 

  • The future of our nation
  • Money/financial security
  • Work
  • Politics
  • Violence/Crime

And that was pre-pandemic! For most of us, we can now add health and immunity to that list too. [x]

What are the symptoms of high stress?

Everyone has experienced a period of high stress at some point in their lives. Whether it’s finals week, a family emergency, or a health crisis, these are all common periods of high stress. And while the hormonal response is the same in everyone, the manifestation of stress can certainly vary from person to person. 

Common physical and mental symptoms of high (chronic) stress include:

  • A racing heart
  • Anxiety or thought spirals
  • Jitters, not being able to sit still or calmly
  • Shallow breathing
  • Being distracted, jumping around from one thing to the next
  • Tight muscles
  • Sleeplessness
  • Fatigue
  • Mood imbalances.

How to relieve stress

Stress relief can be hard to come by, and many of us are inclined to use television, alcohol, and scrolling through social media, as “stress relief,” but these activities are really just numbing—a brief period of ignorance until we are forced to see our problems again and our stress returns. It’s not to say that we can never enjoy these activities, but we should be mindful when they are simply serving as a distraction from bigger issues. 

So what does stress relief actually feel like? Our muscles should feel relaxed and our minds calm, not whirling in a million directions or looping on negative thoughts. We might feel connection to others, love, and a sense of reassurance that everything is going to work out. We are able to sit down to a meal with intention and enjoyment, not rushing through it to get to the next activity. 

If any of these sound difficult to you, you probably have some level of chronic stress in your life. Read on to find simple ways to lower that stress and encourage more balance in your life. 

Breathe

A common recommendation for stress management is meditation. No doubt, meditation is wonderful, and if that’s your cup of tea, go for it! But many people can feel overwhelmed by the idea of meditation, so instead, we’ll turn to simple breathing for lowering stress and getting into the parasympathetic rest and digest state. 

One technique to try is called “box breathing.” Inhale for a count of 4, hold at the top for 4, exhale for 4, hold at the bottom for 4, and repeat. Continue until you feel your body relax and release tension. And if your mind wanders, don’t worry! Just start counting again. In for 1… 2… 3… 4… 

Low-intensity movement

Notice we said “movement,” not “exercise.” When the body is in an overly stressed state, exercise like running, HIIT, or intense sports or weight training can actually release more cortisol and magnify the stress response. You may get the “runner’s high” of endorphins right after your session, but later you’ll feel exhausted and burnt out. 

Instead, try simply moving your body with light walking, yoga, or even dancing. These forms of movement can still get your blood circulation going, but they won’t cause that release of stress hormones. They also allow the body to release tension and stored emotions, the “issues in the tissues,” you might say. The longer you hold onto those stresses and heavy emotions, the more likely you will develop physical manifestations of those feelings. So shake it out! 

Connect

Stress often causes us to be in our heads, consumed with our problems and never ending to-do lists. Genuine connection with others allows us to step out of those problems and see what is outside of our centered existence in the present moment. Call up a friend or family member you haven’t talked to in a while and have a conversation outside of either of your daily stresses. (You don’t want to open the door for the other person to dump their stress onto you either!) Even better, get out and do something fun with other people. 

Research actually shows that people physically respond better to stressful situations in the presence of other people, with lower spikes in heart rate, blood pressure, and other physiological responses to stress. [9]

Supplement

The suggestions above can help both relieve stress and prevent extra stress from developing. Still, stress is ubiquitous in our society, and supplementation can help support your body’s stress response when it is used as one part of your stress management strategy.

With this in mind, we developed BodyBio Calm, a unique, only 5-ingredient stress management supplement formulated to help you reduce the stress response in a gentle and supportive way. Our formula combines essential amino acids like glycine and taurine with the adaptogen rhodiola rosea, phospholipid phosphatidylserine, and key mineral manganese. All of these ingredients have proven stress-reduction capabilities and come together to create a stress management supplement unlike any other on the market.  

Understanding Stress Response To Develop Healthier Habits

When we know how the stress response is activated and when, we can adapt our lifestyle to reduce stress and improve our resilience to stressful situations. There are many options available to you for minimizing stress besides the few techniques we listed above. 

What are your go-to stress management techniques, and what can you add to your repertoire? 

For more information on the new BodyBio Calm, click here.

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