Stress is such a frequent experience in our day-to-day life as it is natural and, in most cases, useful. However, it is also true that many of the people who find themselves in the need to go to the psychologist or the doctor do so for problems triggered at least in part by stress.
That is why for decades, both Psychology and Physiology and Neurosciences have worked hard to help us better understand what it is that leads us to be stressed and anxious. This time we will focus on the more “micro” and psychobiological aspects of this phenomenon, giving an overview of the main stress hormones.
The biological bases of stress
When we feel stressed, we are not experiencing a purely psychological phenomenon, much less subjective. Stress is a physiological and emotional mechanism that goes far beyond our consciousness and that involves a change of state of many of the organs of our body. In fact, in practice, we are aware that we are stressed after that process has begun.
It makes sense that this is the case: our ability to enter a state of stress exists so that not all of our actions depend on having paused for a while to reflect and decide what to do under certain circumstances. In other words: stress shows that sometimes the most useful thing is to let our emotions guide us, not to depend totally on reason. In this way, we are able to react quickly to signals sent by our environment, without wasting time thinking about what our next action should be (sometimes, the simple fact of doing that already makes us miss opportunities).
Seen in perspective, stress is the result of millions of years of evolution shaping animal species exposed to all kinds of dangers: attacks by predators, falls, fights between clans and within clans, etc. So, natural selection has given rise to neuro-endocrine mechanisms capable of putting us into a state of stress, which helps us cope with these situations.
Thus, stress hormones are the molecules used by our body as messengers between organs and cell tissues in order, in a matter of seconds, to 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, this triggers phenomena such as the contraction of superficial blood vessels (to avoid a great loss of blood in case of receiving injuries), a greater sensitivity to stimuli, having the glands sweatpants at full capacity to avoid overheating the body, keep muscles tense and ready for a fight or flight response …
Stress hormones are, in this circuit of parts of the body that “transform” momentarily, part of the messengers that are responsible for making stress reach all parts of the body, even the most remote areas of the brain. I say they are part of them because in reality the functioning of hormones is too full of complexities and interactions to reduce it entirely to a few messenger molecules; however, stress hormones are the most important and characteristic in this class of processes. Next we will see what they are.
What are the types of stress hormones?
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 favored by them may last longer or even remain “fixed” in the body (for example, in the development of sexual characteristics during puberty and adolescence).
In this section we will see the main characteristics of the types of stress hormones, the molecules that play a fundamental role in bringing us to a state of high psychological and physiological stress.
Catecholamines include some of the most famous hormones and neurotransmitters. Regarding stress, within this category noteworthy adrenaline and norepinephrine.
Both are involved in the fight and flight response, accelerating our heart rate and blood pressure, so that the body has a greater capacity to extract energy from its resources and to diffuse it throughout the body.
Cortisol is secreted primarily by the adrenal glands, and involves a release of glucose to be available in the blood.
In the same way, 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 entails a reduction in the chances of short-term inflammation, although in the medium and long term it favors the deterioration of physical health.
Prolactin is another of the hormones secreted in large amounts by our body when we are stressed. This protein secreted by the pituitary gland is linked to activities of great biological importance, including nutrition and reproduction.
One of its effects is the inhibition of the creation of estrogens, and it is believed that this has to do with the fact that many women with problems due to excess stress suffer menstrual alterations.
What about the psychological dimension?
So far we have briefly seen several of the biological mechanisms involved in the stress response, but the fact of being stressed is not limited to physiological processes such as muscle tension or sweating.
When our stress level goes up, that it also implies 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 in both directions: sometimes, without realizing it, we ourselves favor the appearance of stress problems by having internalized dysfunctional habits and patterns of behavior, which predispose us to enter these again and again. hormonal and brain mechanisms.
The good news is that in the same way that our actions can reinforce stress, they can also help to mitigate it, something that is very useful in psychotherapy.
Do you want to attend psychological therapy?
Stress problems can be effectively addressed and overcome through psychotherapy; Nowadays, there are techniques and treatments that allow patients to learn to better regulate their emotions and to establish patterns of behavior to mitigate anxiety.
So, if you are interested in starting a psychological therapy process, get in touch with me; I am a psychologist specialized in the cognitive-behavioral model and in contextual therapies; I serve adults and adolescents both in person and online by video call.