Understanding the Body’s Stress Response

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When your body faces stress, it releases hormones that put your body on alert to protect itself. Short-term stress is normal and even beneficial, as it helps you manage an immediate situation and build resiliency. However, if stress continues or happens frequently, it can cause health problems.

Read on to learn about the role hormones play in the stress response.

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What Are Stress Hormones?

When your body senses danger, it activates the body's sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to help maintain homeostasis (stability when adapting to change). This system also helps prepare you to handle the danger, whether real or perceived.

The SNS is involved in the body's stress response. It releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to help with the "fight or flight" response. When the acute stress is over, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) helps your body return to its normal state.

How Common Is Stress?

Everyone experiences stress, but some are more affected by it, particularly people living in the United States. The American Institute of Stress states that 55% of Americans experience stress on a daily basis. This is 20% higher than the global average.

Cortisol

Cortisol belongs to a group of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. It is sometimes called "the stress hormone" because of the large role it plays in the stress response.

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys. It aids in the stress response by mobilizing stored glucose to be used as energy. This energy allows you to handle the stressful situation.

Cortisol helps in the fight-or-flight response by:

  • Prompting a release of glucose, which supplies immediate energy to your large muscles
  • Inhibiting production and digestion, so that glucose is available instead of stored
  • Narrowing the arteries, making blood pump harder and faster to the heart and large muscles

Cortisol is necessary in the moment, but prolonged exposure—as seen with chronic stress—can have negative health effects, such as weakening the immune system and decreasing energy levels.

Chronic stress and excess cortisol have also been linked to conditions such as:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Diabetes
  • Mental health disorders
  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Male reproductive system dysfunction

Benefits of Cortisol

Cortisol helps the fight-or-flight response, which is necessary for both personal and species survival. Cortisol also helps:

  • Manage blood pressure and heart function 
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Break down sugar (along with insulin) to be used for energy
  • Manage the metabolism of protein, carbohydrates, and fat
  • With waking up in the morning

Adrenaline

Adrenaline (also called epinephrine) is another hormone that helps with the fight-or-flight response. It is also released from the adrenal glands.

Adrenaline circulating through the body causes physiological changes such as by:

  • Increasing heart rate (pushing blood to the muscles, the heart, and other vital organs)
  • Increasing blood pressure
  • Opening small airways in the lungs and increasing breathing rate to take in more oxygen and supply it to the brain (increasing alertness and sharpening senses)
  • Prompting the release of glucose and fats from storage sites in the body such as the liver
  • Causing fat tissue to break down, increasing lactic acid in your muscles

Glucagon

Glucagon is a hormone that tells your liver to release glycogen (many connected molecules of glucose that are stored in the liver). The glycogen is then converted into glucose to raise blood sugar or be used as energy.

Glucagon is mostly associated with physical stress, such as going too long without eating or having severe low blood sugar.

Glucagon is released due to:

  • Low blood glucose levels
  • High protein meals
  • Adrenaline

Symptoms of High Stress Hormones

When engaged in the fight-or-flight response, you may experience:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Trembling

Prolonged exposure to high cortisol and chronic stress may cause:

How Does Stress Affect the Body? 

Stress can cause many behavioral, psychological, emotional, physical, cognitive, and social symptoms.

Stress affects multiple body systems, including the:

Chronic stress—and, in turn, chronic cortisol exposure—has been linked to:

How to Reduce Stress Hormones

In the short term, the stress response is a good thing. Without it, you wouldn't be able to react effectively to dangerous situations.

Chronic stress, however, is not helpful and can cause health problems, many of which stem from prolonged exposure to stress hormones.

Some ways to respond productively to stress in the moment and prevent or manage chronic stress include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a variety of nutritious foods regularly
  • Getting enough good quality sleep
  • Doing muscle-relaxation exercises
  • Creating and maintaining a social support network
  • Using breathing exercises such as deep breathing or box breathing
  • Practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation, guided imagery, or yoga
  • Doing something creative
  • Laughing or crying
  • Engaging in physical affection with loved ones or pets
  • Identifying your stressors and looking for solutions
  • Unwinding with activities you enjoy, such as music, reading, or movies
  • Getting involved in the community (clubs, classes, volunteering, etc.)
  • Participating in a support group

Summary

Stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, are important for the stress response. In an acutely stressful situation, stress hormones enable the fight-or-flight response and help you deal with what your body perceives as an emergency.

Stress hormones should return to normal levels after the stressful situation is over, but prolonged or chronic stress can cause stress hormones to stay at higher levels than they should be. This can cause health concerns.

Stress management techniques include healthy lifestyle habits such as good-quality sleep, exercise, relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and connecting with others.

A Word From Verywell 

Stress hormones are important to manage short-term stress, but if you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed frequently, talk to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can help you find ways to identify and manage your stress to prevent future health complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does anxiety cause high cortisol?

    Stress causes cortisol levels to rise. Anxiety can be a symptom of high cortisol.

  • What foods raise cortisol?

    It may be helpful to limit or avoid:

    • Added sugar and refined carbohydrates
    • Trans fats
    • Caffeine
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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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