Stress is such a common experience in our daily lives that it is natural and, in most cases, useful. However, it is also true that many of the people who feel they need to go to the psychologist or doctor do so because of issues that are triggered at least in part by stress.
That’s why, for decades, psychology, physiology, and neuroscience have taken care to help us better understand what causes us to be stressed and anxious. On this occasion we will focus on the most micro and psychobiological aspects of this phenomenon, review the main stress hormones.
The biological basis of stress
When we feel stressed, we are not experiencing a purely psychological phenomenon, let alone subjective. Stress is a physiological and emotional mechanism that goes far beyond our awareness and this implies a change of state of several of the organs of our body. In fact, in practice, we are aware that we are stressed once this process has started.
It makes sense to be like this: our ability to enter a state of stress exists so that not all of our actions depend on stopping for a moment to think and decide what circumstances need to be done. In other words, stress shows that sometimes the most useful is to let ourselves be guided by our emotions, not to depend entirely on reason. In this way, we are able to react quickly to signals sent to us by our environment, without wasting time thinking about what our next action should be (sometimes just doing it is already losing opportunities).
Put in perspective, stress is the result of millions of years of evolution shaping animal species exposed to all kinds of dangers: predator attacks, falls, fights between clans and within clans, etc. For that, natural selection has given birth to neuroendocrine mechanisms capable of putting us into a state of stress, which helps us to cope with these situations.
Thus, stress hormones are the molecules used by our body as messengers between organs and cellular tissues to, in a few seconds, be able to react quickly to fleeting dangers and opportunities, minimizing the risk of being damaged. For example, when the body begins to secrete stress hormones, it triggers phenomena such as contraction of the superficial blood vessels (to prevent significant blood loss in case of injury), increased sensitivity to stimuli, having sweat glands at full capacity to prevent body overheating, keep muscles tense and ready for a fight or flight response…
Stress hormones are, in this circuit of parts of the body that momentarily “transform”, part of the messengers that cause stress to reach all parts of the body, even the most distant areas of the brain. I say that they are part of it because in reality the functioning of hormones is too loaded with complexities and interactions to reduce it completely to a few messenger molecules; however, stress hormones are the most important and characteristic of this class of processes. Below we will see what they are.
What types of stress hormones are these?
A hormone is a molecule used by our endocrine system to trigger reactions in various areas of the body, by releasing these substances into our bloodstream.
Many of these molecules are also neurotransmitters, in the sense that they can be used by our neurons to communicate with each other; however, when they behave like hormones, their effects take a little longer to occur, and the changes they promote may stay longer or even be “fixed” in the body (for example, in development. sexual characteristics during puberty and adolescence).
In this section we will see the main characteristics of the types of stress hormones, molecules that play a key role in leading us to a state of high psychological and physiological stress.
Catecholamines include some of the best known hormones and neurotransmitters. As for stress, in this category note adrenaline and noradrenaline.
Both are involved in the fight-and-flight response, speeding up our heart rate and blood pressure so that the body has a greater ability to extract energy from its resources and distribute it throughout the body.
Cortisol is secreted primarily by the adrenal glands and it is a release of glucose so that it is available in the blood.
Likewise, it slows down the biological processes associated with the functioning of the immune system to focus the use of resources on other more urgent and crucial aspects in the short term, and this also leads to a reduction in the risks of inflammation in the short term. . which in the medium and long term favors the wear and tear of physical health.
Prolactin is another of the hormones secreted in large quantities by our body when we are stressed.. This protein secreted by the pituitary gland is linked to activities of great biological importance, in particular feeding and reproduction.
One of its effects is inhibiting the creation of estrogen, and this is believed to be due to the fact that many women with stress issues suffer from menstrual disturbances.
What about the psychological dimension?
So far, we have briefly seen several biological mechanisms involved in the stress response, but being stressed is not limited to physiological processes such as muscle tension or sweating.
When our stress levels increase, it it also involves experiencing changes on a psychological level, both in our way of thinking and in our way of feeling emotions and interacting with the environment. And this relationship between the physiological and the psychological works both ways: sometimes, without realizing it, we ourselves promote the appearance of stress problems by having internalized dysfunctional habits and behaviors, which predispose us to enter again and again in these brain mechanisms.
The good news is that just as our actions can increase stress, they can also help relieve it, which is put to great use in psychotherapy.
Do you want to undergo psychological therapy?
Stress problems can be treated and overcome effectively with psychotherapy; Currently there are techniques and treatments that allow patients to learn to better regulate their emotions and establish behaviors to relieve anxiety.
So if you are interested in starting a psychological therapy process, please contact me; I am a psychologist specializing in the cognitive-behavioral model and contextual therapies; I serve adults and teens in person and online via video call.
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- Ranabir, S .; Reetu, K. (January 2011). Stress and hormones. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. 15 (1): p. 18 – 22.
- Taves, MD; Gómez-Sànchez, CE; Soma, KK (2011). Extrasuprarenal glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoids: evidence of local synthesis, regulation and function. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 301 (1): pp. E11 – 24.