Picture a deflated bouncy castle. This is your capacity, your internal resource, for dealing with stress and it needs a few things to do its job well. What is your brain doing when you encounter a stressful situation? Let's take a look inside. We need a space – a place for this party to happen. That's in the hypothalamus – a big chemical factory where things get started. Let's look at a few of those chemicals and how they help the party to happen.
First, cortisol is a chemical whose job is restore balance to your body. It’s the frontline defence of your body’s stress reaction. It rebalances your blood sugar levels, and lowers your immune system, (which in small doses means it does things like reducing inflammation). It’s there to help your body cope with stress. Cortisol is the air in the bouncy castle. It keeps you buoyant during a stressful situation.
So in the short term that’s great. No one can remain stressed on a bouncy castle. The stress reduces and cortisol has done its job. Yay cortisol! However, if the stress carries on, or doesn’t reduce fast enough, then more and more CRH and AVP will be produced, which means more cortisol. The bouncy castle inflates further and further, your immune system is reduced even more to the point of rising infection risks, your blood pressure remains high, and even your memory can be affected. Eventually the bouncy castle has to burst, and that's REALLY stressful.
Endorphins are one of those neuro-chemicals that most people have sort of heard of. In the broadest of senses they’re the “happy” chemicals, though their real purpose seems to be relief of pain, stress and anxiety. Endorphins are basically an emotional energy boost, supporting the human body through difficulty by reducing our ability to feel pain. It’s a sedative and an analgesic, and just what you want when faced with stress. It’s nice and simple to induce; exercise, laughter and chocolate can all do it. So that bouncy castle is now at a party, and there’s chocolate and laughter abounding. That stress is looking a lot less… stressful, isn’t it?
And that’s what happens when you overcome stressful situations. Dopamine makes you want to overcome it. Endorphins give you a boost. Cortisol keeps the stress from getting to you as you do it; CRH and AVP helping it along the way. And then once you’ve faced it, once you’re through, your body throws you a party. All through the process, from the moment you first encounter the stressful situation, your brain is releasing chemicals to help you overcome it. Your body wants you to win. All you have to do is go along with it.
Guest Contributor: Julian Richards
Edited by: Heidi Hollis
Still coming (stay tuned!): How to use Social Media to become Happier!