When the body is under a state of stress it responds by producing stress hormones. Then, once the stressful event has passed, the body begins the process of breaking down the excess levels. The neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin help to get rid of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and, over time, the body and mind become more tranquil. If however we continue to be stressed our bodies respond by continually attempting to produce stress hormones.
The body can only release adrenaline for so long before levels start to deplete. When this happens we begin to feel tired, emotionally fatigued and inattentive. Continued demands on our adrenaline can raise blood pressure and increases the risk of coronary heart disease. This alone is cause for concern but experts in the field of stress have mainly focused their attention on what has become know as the stress hormone -cortisol.
Cortisol isn’t just produced as a result of stress. This naturally occurring hormone has a variety of important functions such as maintaining the water balance of the body, stimulating the release of endorphins and helping to relieve inflammation. Ongoing high levels of cortisol are a different matter altogether. Cortisol in excess is known to damage neurons in an area of the brain involved in emotion and memory. Too much cortisol also negatively affects the immune system and this leaves the person vulnerable to disease and less able to repair damaged tissue. It can also affect sleep patterns by stimulating the body when it should be asleep.
Chronic stress can have the effect of depleting the body’s supply of noradrenaline. An excess of cortisol and adrenaline goes on to impede normal brain and memory functions. There are a variety of physical and psychological consequences. Physically, the risk of cardiac disease increases, but a range of other problems including endocrine, metabolic and gastro-intestinal disorders can result. Psychologically, the sense of helplessness and despair associated with chronic stress can lead to severe depression.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.