Dr Libby: The Three Stages Of Stress (And How To Manage It)

By Dr Libby Weaver
Collage / Julia Gessler

In this special series, guest writer Dr Libby Weaver shares her health insights.

In the tapestry of our individual lives, the response to stress is a deeply personal narrative.

Some people — those we would colloquially refer to as “adrenaline junkies” — almost get addicted to the rush.

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It’s helpful to know, too, that when you first make additional adrenaline, you might enjoy some of its benefits, such as sharper thinking, increased energy and a sensation of aliveness. This may prompt you knowingly or unknowingly to seek more of these perks.

Is there such a thing as good stress?

Of course, not all stress is bad for us. Stress that supports our health is known as ‘eustress’. Akin to the Goldilocks zone of our mental and physical exertion — it’s stress that actually supports our health and helps us to achieve our goals.

With eustress, we rest and we recover before the next stress comes, and this allows us to gradually adapt. This process is called hormesis in which exposure to a ‘low dose’ of something that would be damaging at higher doses induces an adaptive, beneficial effect.

The problem is that the modern symphony of stress too often begins to play to a different tune. One that is unrelenting and persistent — with little to no break. And without those periods of rest and recovery, stress begins to shift from being a source of strength to an overwhelming cacophony that taxes both mind and body.

It is the relentlessness of stress hormone production that leaves us totally depleted.

The three stages of stress response

While it might seem like you one day ended up in a pile of exhaustion, there are actually three stages to the stress response: the alarm phase, the high cortisol phase and then finally the inadequate cortisol phase.

The alarm phase is the overture, the acute response to life’s sudden crescendos. During this phase, adrenaline is high. When brought on by something like a balloon popping or the screeching halt of traffic, the surge of adrenaline we experience is short-lived, before we return to what is called “homeostasis”, a state of equilibrium on the inside.

Yet, these days adrenaline is just as often stoked by non-life-threatening, though no less relentless provocateurs, such as the tyranny of the ticking clock, the digital pings of our interconnected lives, perceptions of pressure and urgency, worrying what others think of us, and the double espresso shots we gulp down to get us through the day. In other words, the production of adrenaline these days is usually not in response to trying to save our lives; it is a by-product of our choices and thinking.

With the constantly high levels of adrenaline that occur for most people today come myriad changes to our physiology. Adrenaline elevates blood pressure, increases heart rate, disrupts digestion and leads you to burn predominantly glucose, not fat, as your fuel, all of which increases inflammation. The body knows that too many inflammatory compounds are damaging and can shorten life (remember the body has survival as its heart). Therefore, after so long with elevated adrenaline, you move into the second stage of the stress response.

What is cortisol?

Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory and so in stage two, the body elevates cortisol production, in part, to quell the problematic impacts of persistent adrenaline.

Yet, the high adrenaline level and what was driving that has not yet been dealt with and now you also have high cortisol.

Cortisol has many useful actions when we make it in the right amount. When it increases, however, it can start to play havoc with the regulation of blood glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels. It also breaks down muscle which slows metabolic rate, so your clothes start to get tighter even when how you eat and move has not changed.

Some people remain in this biochemical place for years or decades. For others, though, when the stress response has gone on for too long, they enter the third stage of the stress response.

In this final stage, there are two possible scenarios that could lead to the symptoms of what appears as ‘low’ cortisol. The symptoms — a fatigue that clings to one’s bones and a stiffness that greets the dawn — are the remnants of a body’s plea for the relentless ‘danger’ to stop.

In the first scenario, the body’s cortisol production falters — the result of an unyielding stress response that demands more of the endocrine system than can be given. Morning waking cortisol and, for some, cortisol levels across the whole day might be low.

Scenario two occurs when you are still able to produce cortisol but you cannot produce enough to keep putting out the inflammatory fires created by the adrenaline (and other lifestyle factors) you’ve not dealt with.

So, there’s no problem with your ability to produce it, but it doesn’t meet demands. As such, you experience the same symptoms as if your cortisol levels are too low because the inflammation outweighs your body’s capacity to produce enough of the anti-inflammatory cortisol.

What is adrenal fatigue?

Stage three is sometimes referred to as “adrenal fatigue”, though a more accurate description is HPA axis dysregulation, as this reminds us that it’s not a singular plight of the adrenal glands but a chorus of distress from the interconnected systems and all will need support.

Usually by this stage you also have symptoms that relate to the nervous system and other endocrine glands, remembering that these are all under the control of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland: the thyroid, the ovaries (reproductive system and sex hormones) and aspects of digestion, blood glucose regulation and insulin production.

How to manage and recover from stress

We can go a long way to helping someone recover from any stage of stress with dietary changes, herbal medicine and breath-focused practices, but the most effective and long-term, sustained improvements occur when we get to the heart of what the stress is really all about and turn off the tap through changes in actions and/or thinking, or simple acceptance.

Or, at the least, if we can return to a state where the stress is intermittent and there are periods of rest and recovery, we experience periods of eustress and the adaptation and growth that offers.

Dr Libby Weaver.
Dr Libby Weaver.

Dr Libby Weaver PhD is a nutritional biochemist, 13 times best-selling author and international keynote speaker, her “Overcoming Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” course teaches women how to reduce stress — and the negative health consequences it can elicit — while living a full and thriving life. Drlibby.com

More From Dr Libby

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What To Know About Hormone Imbalances. From sex hormones to stress hormones.

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Brittle Nails Or Thinning Hair? Now’s The Time To Listen To Your Body. You don’t want to ignore what might be going on internally.

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