Menu Close

Your Brain Under Stress & Pressure

Your Brain Under Stress & Pressure
Your Brain Under Stress & Pressure

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the ways your brain responds to stress and pressure.

First a quick update:

“Gender Differences and Listening To Women”
There are key gender differences which affect the way men listen & respond to women; and women actually want the opposite to what men are offering when women share a problem with a man. 

“7 Ways To Handle Rejection”
Rejection is one of the hardest things we all have to face, particularly when the brain processes it as physical pain. Watch the video and learn 7 different ways to handle rejection. 

Now, let’s talk about the ways your brain responds to stress and pressure.

One of the primary functions of the human brain is survival.
Survival involves self-preservation (food, water, shelter) and the desire to reproduce.
When the brain perceives a threat to survival, it activates the stress response: Fight, Flight or Freeze.

The brain says ‘there is danger’ and to avoid the danger and stay alive and well, we must either run, fight back or freeze (such as play dead to fool the attacker.)

The stress response begins with the alarm signal issued by the Amygdala.

The Amygdala doesn’t wait for any other part of the brain to determine whether or not there is a real or perceived threat: it overrides (actually bypasses) the Limbic (complex emotional brain) and the Neo-cortex (thinking brain) including the prefrontal cortex which is the executive decision maker controlling our emotional impulses.

Thus, our brain reacts by sounding the alarm and is unable in the moment to distinguish between a perceived or imagined threat and a real threat.

The brain reacts to a person cutting us off on the highway, an angry boss criticizing us or issuing a tight deadline in the same way that it would react to a physical threat of a mugger or an angry animal about to attack us: it sounds the alarm for the stress response.

The brain interprets pressure and stress as physical threats of danger, threats to our very survival.

The Stress Response (Survival Mechanism)

The Amygdala is the alarm bell.

It rings immediately when there is a threat (imagined or real.) It alerts the HPA Axis: Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, Adrenal Glands. The HPA Axis regulates digestion, the immune system, mood, emotions, sexuality and energy storage/expenditure.

The Hypothalamus is the command center.

The Amygdala sends distress signals to the Hypothalamus and now in turn, the Hypothalamus sends immediate nerve signals down the spinal cord to the Adrenal Glands.
The Adrenal Glands are the fighters or warriors.
The Adrenal Glands now release the hormone adrenaline.

Adrenaline increases the rates of blood circulation & pressure, breathing, heart rate, sugar levels in the blood, carbohydrate metabolism, and prepares the muscles for exertion – to fight or run.

The Hypothalamus also sends signals to the Pituitary Gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which then signals and triggers the adrenal cortex to produce a stress hormone – cortisol.

Cortisol is critical to the stress response.

Cortisol curbs or suppresses functions that would be detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It suppresses the digestive system, the immune system, inflammation, the reproductive system and growth processes; it raises blood sugar (glucose) levels, blood pressure and narrows the arteries forcing the heart to pump harder and faster.

The parasympathetic system (rest and digest) is now extremely diminished while the sympathetic system (high energy) is activated preparing the body for full physical exertion of fight or flight.
Once the danger has gone, the stress response of fight, flight or freeze ends and the body returns to homeostasis.

During the recovery period, the brain also learns from and adapts to the experience. BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) helps to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. In other words, the brain adapts to what has been learned from the experience of the stress or threat.

Cortisol – Life Saver and Killer
Thus, cortisol is needed during stress and it also functions to regulate the sleep-wake cycle: cortisol peaks between 7 and 8 AM and drops off dramatically in the evening. Cortisol provides the energy needed to combat stress from trauma, illness, fright, infection, bleeding, etc.

Very low levels of cortisol result in:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Dark rings under the eyes
  • Palpitations
  • Cravings for salty food

When we stay in the stress response for extended periods of time, our cortisol levels remain high and damage occurs to the body:

  • Impaired cognitive function – indecisiveness, restlessness, poor concentration
  • Brain cells in the Hippocampus are killed – affecting memory
  • Brain shrinkage
  • Rapid weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Anxiety, panic attacks
  • Mood swings, depression
  • Lowered thyroid function
  • Chronic fatigue, lethargy
  • Blood sugar imbalances
  • Poor sleep, insomnia
  • Dependence on drugs & alcohol
  • Lowered immune function
  • Slow wound healing
  • Decreased bone density

From the above list it is clearly obvious that chronic stress is a killer because it releases high levels of cortisol for extended periods of time.

As explained in my article, The Antidote to Fear – Amygdala Hijack, the Amygdala bypasses the part of the brain that says ‘Wait. Is this a real threat?’ And while it might seem like a contradiction, although the Amygdala ‘reacts’ with little filtering and interpretation, we are actually training and programming our mind to trigger the Amygdala and stress response based on the way that we interpret or judge events, even at a subconscious level.

Research reveals that appraisal also contributes to the stress response: When we first look at a situation, we appraise it by asking, “Am I in control?” i.e. Do I have the skills to handle the situation? Then we ask ourselves, “Am I being negatively judged by others?”

Our fear of being judged and thus potentially criticized, rejected or cast out is the most important variable that elevates cortisol in our blood during a stressful event.

Accordingly, we have the power to take two critical steps:

Adjust your perception and interpretation of the event & stimulus: become clearly aware of what you can and cannot control; release the fear and attachment to the belief that you are being judged or that you will die if you are judged

Become mindful once your brain begins the stress response; you have the power to neutralize it using various techniques including detachment & observation, awareness of your physical sensations, followed by conscious control of your those physical sensations – use deep, slow breathing and focus entirely on the breath, breathing deeply into your belly and breathing out in a very slow, controlled manner – slower than the breath into your body. Also read how stress shrinks the brain.

If you need assistance to master handling stress & overcome anxiety, book a one-on-one session with me.

You can add to the conversation below.

If this newsletter was forwarded to you and would like to receive all of my newsletters please enter your email address on the home page at

I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

Facebook Comments