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Andrea Drever
By Andrea Drever

Content and Editorial Director

I was walking down the sidewalk, and got a text that was so distressing, I felt like I’d been physically kicked in the back. I actually lost the ability to walk for several minutes. This had happened a few times before, when I was driving and someone pulled a particularly egregious move. Bam, a punch in the back. I now suspect what I was experiencing was a burst of hormones from my adrenals. 

Adrenals, it turns out, are two triangular-shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys, which are located in your lower back. And though they’re small, they have some very big jobs to do. They produce hormones that help regulate your metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress and other essential functions. Two of the hormones these glands produce are adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline, commonly known as the “fight or flight” hormone, is produced after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has presented itself. Along with an increase in heart rate, it gives you a surge of energy, which you might need to run away from a dangerous situation. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress” hormone, takes a little more time for you to feel its effects. In survival mode, cortisol can be lifesaving, helping to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that aren't crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion and growth.

And though both these hormones are essential, having too much of either coursing through your system can wreak havoc on your body. The body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, whether you actually are or not, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment
Woman looking at sunset

Learning to React to Stress in a Healthy Way

Stressful events are obviously facts of life. But fortunately, you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you. You can learn to identify what stresses you and how to take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.

Stress management strategies include:

  • Getting regular exercise
  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, and meditation
  • Reducing triggers of stress, such as over commitment
  • Fostering healthy friendships
  • Having a sense of humor
  • Seeking professional counseling when needed

You won’t be able to prevent someone from cutting you off on the freeway. But, with the right preparation and mindset, you can learn effective and healthy ways to cope with these kinds of life stressors.

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