There are several ways in which a person can respond to a stressful situation, as this is a subjective and personal response that will depend on how the person perceives and experiences the situation.

However, there are a number of physiological processes and reactions common to all people. These reactions are triggered by a series of effects produced by stress related hormones .

What is stress?

When a person experiences a state of tension and anxiety over a continuous period of time he or she is experiencing what is known as stress. This state can cause a whole range of physical conditions as well as an unpleasant feeling of heaviness in the person who suffers it.

Therefore, the two main characteristics of stress states are:

  • Psychological origin of stress , by which an element perceived as stressful by the person induces a series of changes in physical and organic activity.
  • Intervention of the different stress related hormones , which are responsible for these physical alterations.

These hormones are released from the brain to all corners of our body, causing, as mentioned, a large number of physical and physiological changes.

Hormonal disorders

The main structure related to stress states and responses is the neuroendocrine system , which is activated by the appearance of stressful events or situations, accelerating the functioning of the adrenal glands.

This activation causes a series of chain reactions in which the different hormones, cortisol being the hormone with the most weight within these reactions and which alters the body’s functioning the most.

However, there are various hormones involved in the stress processes, which are affected by the action of cortisol.

Stress-Related Hormones

As mentioned above, the hormones involved in the stress response act on other hormones by modifying their action on the body.

1. Cortisol

Cortisol has been established as the stress hormone par excellence . The reason is that the body, under stressful or emergency circumstances, produces and releases large amounts of this hormone, which serves as a trigger to respond to the situation quickly and skilfully.

In normal circumstances the energy generated by our body is directed to execute the different metabolic tasks that maintain the balance of the body’s functions. However, at the appearance of a stressful event the brain generates a series of signals that travel to the adrenal glands, which begin to release large amounts of cortisol.

Once the cortisol is released, it takes care of the blood glucose discharge . Glucose generates a large amount of energy in the muscles, which can move more quickly and respond to the stimulus much more immediately. When the stressor is gone, cortisol levels are restored and the body returns to normal.

This response is not at all harmful to the person, as long as it is not sustained over time. When this occurs, symptoms caused by hormonal dysregulation begin to appear. These symptoms include

  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Palpitations
  • Hypertension
  • Low appetite
  • Gastric conditions
  • Muscle pain
  • Cramps

2. Glucagon

The hormone called glucagon is synthesized by the cells of the pancreas and its main focus of action is focused on carbohydrate metabolism .

The main purpose of this hormone is to allow the liver to release glucose at times when our body needs it, either because of a stressful situation with the aim of activating muscles or because blood glucose levels are low.

In an emergency or stressful situation, the pancreas releases large doses of glucagon into the bloodstream to fuel our bodies. This hormonal imbalance, although useful in threatening situations can be dangerous in people who suffer from some type of diabetes .

3. Prolactin

Despite the fact that this hormone is known to be involved in the secretion of milk during the period of breastfeeding, prolactin levels can be seriously affected in situations of stress that continue over time, even causing hyperprolactinemia .

As the name implies, hyperprolactinemia refers to increased levels of prolactin in the blood. This increased presence of prolactin in the blood inhibits, through different mechanisms, the release of hypothalamic hormones responsible for the synthesis of estrogens.

As a result, the inhibition of female sex hormones leads to a reduction in estrogen, menstrual disorders and even a lack of ovulation .

4. Sex Hormones

Under stressful circumstances, the sex hormones known as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone are disrupted in their normal functioning.

4.1. Testosterone and stress

Testosterone, a male sex hormone in its own right, is responsible for the development of male sexual characteristics, as well as for the sexual response.

When a person experiences high levels of stress over long periods of time, the production of testosterone decreases , as the body prioritizes the release of other hormones such as cortisol, more useful in situations of stress or danger.

As a result of this prolonged subjection to the effects of testosterone inhibition, the person may experience sexual problems such as impotence , erectile dysfunction or lack of sexual desire.

Other symptoms linked to reduced testosterone levels are:

  • Mood swings .
  • Constant fatigue and tiredness.
  • Sleep problems and insomnia.

4.2. Oestrogens

As mentioned above, high levels of stress decrease the release of estrogen, disrupting women’s normal sexual functioning.

However, the correspondence between estrogens and stress occurs in a bidirectional way . Thus, the effects of stress contribute to the reduction of the level of oestrogens and at the same time these exert a protective function against the effects of stress.

4.3. Progesterone

Progesterone is made in the ovaries and among its many functions is that of adjusting the menstrual cycle and intervening in the effects of estrogens , so that these do not exceed their stimulation of cell growth.

When a woman is subjected to stressful situations or contexts for a long time, progesterone production decreases, causing a host of effects and symptoms such as extreme fatigue, weight gain, headaches, mood swings and lack of sexual desire.

Conclusion: a link between psychology and physiology

The existence of stress hormones shows the extent to which the endocrine system is linked to our mental states and behaviour styles. The release of one or another type of hormone is capable of producing measurable changes both in the neurobiological dynamics of the body and in the frequency of occurrence of certain actions.

Thus, we note once again that the separation between physiological and psychological processes is an illusion, something we use to understand the complex reality of human functioning , but which does not necessarily correspond to a boundary naturally present in the biology of our bodies.

Bibliographic references:

  • de Weerth, C., Zijl, R., Buitelaar, J. (2003). “Development of cortisol circadian rhythm in infancy”. Early Hum Dev 73 (1-2): pp. 39 – 52.
  • Hara, Y., Waters, E.M., McEwen, B.S., Morrison, J.H. (2015). “Estrogen Effects on Cognitive and Synaptic Health Over the Lifecourse.” Physiological Reviews. 95 (3): 785 – 807.
  • Neave, N. (2008). Hormones and behaviour: a psychological approach. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0521692014. Lay summary – Project Muse.
  • Voet, JG. (2011). Biochemistry (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.