How to make Stress Work: Adrenaline Explained

Stress seems to be the most common denominator that we have with each other. We all experience stress, very likely on a daily basis. Our short-term stress levels rise when we feel like we are slipping down the stairs, but manage to catch ourselves at the last moment. When we think we have gotten the date on a deadline wrong and missed it, frantically check our e-mails and see that we still have a whole month. Stress is within all of us.

But how does it work? The immediate panic, the build-up, the increased focus, the speed at which we are suddenly moving. When we are suddenly pumped up on adrenaline, what does this look like in the brain?

First things first, adrenaline is both a hormone and neurotransmitter, that is produced by both the adrenal glands (hardly surprising) that can be found chilling on top of your kidneys (slightly more surprising) but also by some type of neurons (Lieberman & Marks, 2009). What is less commonly known is what when referring to adrenaline, what we tend to mean is epinephrine. When we experience short-term stress, epinephrine is produced and released into our system, and later on secreted (Hartman, Waite, & McCordock, 1922), which is how this has been established.

Why does the body suddenly start producing epinephrine? Eminem (2009) describes this process quite well, where the main man in his song is deadly afraid of performing, with sweaty palms, weak knees, heavy arms and vomit on his sweater that is very likely from his mom's spaghetti. What is happening here? It is fear. We produce epinephrine because we get scared. We perceive our situation as threatening. As soon as this perception sets in, the body gets into fight-or-flight mode and epinephrine is rushing through our body. Any type of superfluous process is shut down. It does not matter that you still have your breakfast stuck in your stomach, that porridge will have to be digested another time. Now it is time for survival. The body starts to increase blood flow to muscles, it increases the output of the heart to speed up this process even more, our pupils dilate more and quicker, and our blood sugar level goes through the roof. We are ready to either run, or directly deal with that which we perceive as threatening.

Although most of our stressful experiences are no longer life-or-death focussed, they can be threatening in terms of a social-death. Where missed deadlines can cost you your job or study, and forgetting to unplug your hair straighteners could potentially burn down your apartment in your absence. We panic, we reason, we are reassured and we move on. Meaning, we experience fear, our adrenal glands start producing epinephrine, we rush through our thoughts in an incredibly fast manner, we find the information we had been looking for, we assure ourselves, we take a deep breath, we continue our lives with a slightly elevated heartbeat and later on we secrete slightly more epinephrine than normal. Crisis averted.

Now there is a lot of literature out there that screams at you that being stressed is bad for you and you will die of heart failure before you turn 50 (which to be quite frank with you, contributes to my already increasing stress levels…). But is stress all bad?

Short-term stress is not, or at least does not have to be. Although it would probably be healthier if we remained stable throughout, that is just not how life has programmed us to be. In fact, many things that we try for the first time release adrenaline within our system. This first-time-adrenaline release is also what drives so called "adrenaline junkies." They are people who engage in sensation-seeking behaviour by pursuing new and often risky experiences, where they often disregard risks, such as physical, social, legal or financial risk. This pursuit can focus on extreme sports, substance abuse, unsafe sex, crime etc. Whatever floats your boat really. To some people taking the subway instead of the car somewhere is a risky business.

So why adrenaline junkies? These risky activities increase circulating levels of adrenaline during physiological stress, just as seen when experiencing fear of a missed deadline. But compared to us "normal people, " adrenaline junkies live off this thrill. There is a reason adrenaline junkies seek out these risks. It is similar to why people take adrenaline-based medication to perform better and why we feel like we can handle the world after we experience an increase in adrenaline production. This increase has other, very beneficial consequences, such as increased alertness (Frankenhaeuser, Järpe, & Matell, 1961) and the augmentation of memory consolidation (Jänig, 2008). I mentioned before that all other superfluous processes shut down. That is just it. Nothing else is working, and our entire cognitive and physical focus is on the one thing we MUST do now. This also goes a way to explaining why quite a few people wait till the very last minute to do, complete and hand in their work. They need the additional pressure to get it done and to get it done well. Stress, giving us our best performance.

In this article I have explained how short-term stress works in the brain and body, and why it is definitely not all that bad to experience adrenaline driven stress in a while. Does that mean all the literature screaming that "stress is bad for you!" wrong? No. But that literature focusses on cortisol driven stress, which is long(er)-term stress. Which is exactly what we will focus on next article.

References Eminem (2009) Lose Yourself. 8 Mile. Eminem, Resto, L & Bass, J.

Frankenhaeuser, M., Järpe, G., & Matell, G. (1961). Effects of intravenous infusions of adrenaline and noradrenaline on certain psychological and physiological functions. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 51(2‐3), 175-186.

Hartman, F. A., Waite, R. H., & McCordock, H. A. (1922). The liberation of epinephrine during muscular exercise. Am. J. Physiol, 62, 225-241.

Jänig, W. (2008). Integrative action of the autonomic nervous system: Neurobiology of homeostasis. Cambridge University Press.

Lieberman, M., & Marks, A. D. (2009). Marks' basic medical biochemistry: a clinical approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.