During periods of stress, the brain shuts down important regions that are needed for long-term planning and increases the chemicals in regions that help us react quickly and without much thinking.
The body sends its resources to the systems that will help you flee from danger or fight to defend yourself (that’s why the heart is pounding!) It takes those resources away from things like digestion, reproduction and healing. That’s a big part of why chronic stress is so harmful for health and can increase risk of heart disease, infections and digestive or metabolic disorders.
When this is happening, stress hormones are released throughout the body and shape our behaviour. The hormone oxytocin is a key part of the stress response for women. It creates the desire to be close to others, to seek social support and hugs and protection.
Amongst men, there may be an increase in vasopressin and testosterone. These two hormones increase the competitive drive and desire to defend yourself and those you care about. And amongst just about everyone, the stress hormone cortisol makes us crave whatever we are addicted to, from cigarettes to cookies to checking our phones or e-mail.
Everyone seems to have different stress thresholds, so the big question is what causes stress? Well, genetics is key - some children are born with what is called a sensitive temperament.
This makes babies and children easily stressed out by things like new environments, new people and being separated from their primary caregivers. This temperament can lead to an increased risk for anxiety, depression, addiction and other stress-related problems.
However, this inherited sensitivity doesn’t mean a lifetime of being overwhelmed by stress. Research suggests that sensitive children who are well-nurtured by their primary caregivers and shape a secure attachment style go on to become incredibly resilient.
Life experiences have an impact on our resilience. Traumatic experiences, especially ones that occurred over a long period of time, like growing up in an abusive home or serving in war, can change the way the brain and body respond to stress.
Your brain and body can learn that the world is a dangerous place and become more reactive to any sign of threat. At the same time, there are many life experiences that make us more resilient to stress.
We Connect members - monitor your stress levels today. Do you feel you are on a fight or flight response? If yes, take action. For example, look at our articles in Relaxation Tips, or try some of our online exercise classes in Health and Fitness to get moving and boost your feel-good endorphin levels.