Dr Libby: How Does Your Body Turn Thoughts Into Stress?

By Dr Libby Weaver
Understanding what occurs physically in your body when you get stressed can go some way towards helping you destress. Photo / Getty Images

From morning chaos to urgent emails, life’s daily stressors hit hard. But why?

Have you ever wondered how your body takes a thought — or several thoughts in a row — or a momentary experience and turns them into stress? How does your body really take the endless list

The scenario

Imagine you’re heading out the door to continue your day, after a frantic morning of meeting everyone else’s needs — breakfasts, missing shoes, high-pressure dressing too close to departure time, collating everything you need to take with you for your day ahead.

Just before you bundle everyone into the car (or perhaps you’re on your own and about to make a dash for the train), you check your emails on your phone. The contents of that email shocks you and, in an instant, you notice that your heart, already racing from your chaotic morning, steps up a few notches and your breath catches in your chest.

You’re now fretting and the noise inside the car/train from the chatter seems cacophonous.

Inside your head, you’re trying to devise a plan about how to respond to the email, but you’re finding it hard to think clearly with all of the noise.

You know you can’t really deal with the email until you get to work, but you can’t stop looping the issues it has raised in your mind.

What happens to your body when it gets stressed?

Understanding what occurs physically in our bodies when we get stressed can go some way towards helping us alter our choices, responses, behaviours and perceptions.

Appreciating just how hard our body works to keep us safe and healthy can sometimes spur us on when it comes to living in a way that is more supportive of our health, rather than just repeatedly hearing how bad stress is for us and feeling powerless to do anything to change that.

Stress hormones themselves — namely adrenaline and cortisol — are produced by the adrenal glands, walnut-sized structures that sit on top of our kidneys. But to understand their function and the impact of the stress hormones themselves, we first need to take a step back and consider what leads the adrenals to be on the receiving end of signals that instruct them to produce adrenaline and cortisol.

Put simply, stress hormones are not just randomly produced. The adrenals must receive a message from another part of you that has assessed the information available in your internal and external environments.

This information might involve seeing what nutrients are present or missing from your blood (remembering that missing nutrients means famine to the body, not that you have access to plenty of food but have been relying way too much on takeaways in the recent past because you’re time poor, or that you have voluntarily gone on a restrictive diet), sex hormone information (involved in whether you ovulate regularly or not, as one example), and the effects of your perceptions or reality on whether there is more fear or love.

What your hypothalamus has to do with it

It all starts in the brain, in a small region called the hypothalamus, where our nervous system and endocrine (hormonal) system meet. One of the tasks of the hypothalamus is to collate information it receives and assess our level of safety at all times. Essentially, it repeats the question, ‘Am I safe?’ 24/7.

To identify an answer it assesses you both biochemically (for example, how much adrenaline you might have zooming around in the bloodstream at the moment) and emotionally (such as if you felt that a passing comment from one of your colleagues meant they didn’t think you did a good job, which can lead you to experience an emotional lack of safety with job security or your colleague’s perception of you).

If the answer to the hypothalamus’s question of ‘Am I safe?’ is no, which is predominantly the case for many people these days (due to constant, relentless, high circulating adrenaline levels from things like caffeine and perceptions of pressure and urgency), the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary gland, also in the brain, that you are not safe and that she needs to get to work to help keep you safe.

So, it is the pituitary which then communicates the real or perceived lack of safety information to all of the other glands in the endocrine system. This includes the thyroid gland (in the neck), the adrenals, the ovaries in women and the testes in men.

This all leads the adrenal glands to respond to the hormonal messages the pituitary sends — primarily adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) — and they then produce stress hormones. The system involving the hypothalamus, pituitary and the adrenals is often referred to as the HPA axis.

The nervous system is also involved in awakening the adrenals to the ‘threat’ at hand. If they are on the receiving end of stimulation by what are called sympathetic preganglionic neurons — or put simply, signals from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — this too can drive stress hormone production. The nerve endings themselves can also release another stress hormone known as noradrenaline, whose actions are very similar to those of adrenaline.

How to manage your thoughts before they become stress

Do your best to become more aware of your thoughts and this cascade of internal events so you can produce fewer stress hormones in the first place, rather than feeling like you’re fighting an uphill battle to ‘manage’ stress.

Save perceptions of pressure and urgency for if/when you really need them, rather than making them part of how you respond to everyday life.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker. For more on reducing stress, visit Drlibby.com

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