Your Brain and Body on Stress: The Hormone Connection

Stress hormones can support your brain and body, or they can work against your system – the key is finding the right balance of smart vs. not-so-smart stress levels. Healthy bodies need the right levels of circulating stress hormones – too little and we get weak and slow; too much, and we get sick and fat. So how do we achieve the ‘right’ balance? This article will explore smart vs. not so smart stress, which hormones affect stress levels, health risks of unbalanced stress, and finally simple ways you can start managing stress every day.

balancing rocks

Smart Stress

Suppose the fire alarm goes off. You awaken, and your stress hormones dial-up to high alert. Why? Because the well-being of your family depends upon your making quick, life-saving decisions. Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tells your blood pressure and heart rate to increase to pump more blood to your brain, heart, lungs, and muscles while shunting blood away from your gut, kidneys, and reproductive organs – You don’t have time to eat, urinate, or procreate while your house is burning. You grab the kids and, if time permits, your prized possessions, and you safely run out of the house, escaping the fire.

You take a deep breath, think something like, “Thank God we’re all safe,” and your stress hormones dial back down. The next day you get on with the repairs, still thinking about how fortunate you are to have survived unharmed.

This is a normal and healthy stress response known as eustress. Eustress is stress which is perceived to be within our personal coping boundaries.

stress and the brain

Not So Smart Stress

Suppose, however, that after you escape the fire, your stress dial stays high. You continue to worry: “If only I had . . . ” “What if it happens again?” “Why me?” The worry drags on for days and weeks. Your stress hormone dial stays up and the stress effects of high blood pressure and high heart rate stay elevated. This type of stress is called distress and is perceived to be outside of our personal coping boundaries.

How Stress Bothers Your Brain & Body

Stress hormones are somewhat like blood sugar. Our brain needs just the right level to function: too low and the brain gets too tired; too high and the brain gets inflamed and damaged. The same is true for stress hormones. Too high and it can cause inflammation; too low and it can lead to depression. The right level is biochemically good for the brain.

Stress hormones go by various names, such as cortisol, corticosteroids, glucocorticoids, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and many others. For our purposes in this article, we’ll mainly discuss the stress hormone cortisol, because it’s the most common and best known, but know that it’s really not accurate to blame all of our stress responses, and their consequences, on this one hormone.

How Worry Shrinks the Brain

Prolonged high levels of cortisol can literally shrink the memory and emotional centers of your brain. This is why the worst thing you can do when going into an important presentation is to be overstressed because it can neurochemically shut off the memory bank that you need to draw on to give it your best. While the right level of cortisol increases alertness and attention during a work task or while taking a test, stress hormones that are too high for too long dull focus. Your mind can “go blank.”

Why Stress Makes You Tired

Wonder why stressed and anxious people often suffer “chronic fatigue”? When you experience a stressful situation, your lifesaving stress hormones (especially the fast-acting adrenaline rush) quickly withdraw fuel energy from your body’s energy storage bank (stored sugar and sometimes fat) and deliver it to the brain and muscles for quick decisions and fast movement. But once your stress dial turns back down, those hormones stop withdrawing the energy, and your body has the chance to build its energy stores back up.

When this stress dial stays turned up too high for too long, continuously calling on its buddy, the adrenal gland, to produce more cortisol, your energy bank eventually goes broke. You get sick and tired.

How Worry Affects Your Whole Being

The expression “worried to death” has a biochemical basis. Chronic unresolved stress affects every vital organ in the body – from shrinking the brain and making us sick and fat to suppressing sleep patterns and aging the heart. Long-term stress can also lead to behavioral and mood issues such as overeating, alcohol abuse and depression.

5 Ways to Reduce Stress & Find Balance

The good news is that there are simple ways to begin reducing stress and getting your hormones back in balance.

1. Go outside and play

Regular exercise outdoors can result in higher levels of dopamine and serotonin, the “feel-good” hormones. Doing something that you enjoy will help you do this often.

2. Practice deep breathing & meditation

Slow, deep breathing methods and meditation practices activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the relaxation system, to reduce the stress response.

3. Try reframing

Train your mind to reframe an anxious negative thought when it arises by dwelling on a happy or pleasant thought instead.

4. Express an attitude of gratitude

Practicing gratitude helps to create a shift in mindset, which reduces stress and anxiety over time. Take time each day to notice what you are thankful for in your life.

5. Play some music for your mind

Listening to music activates your brain and can help you improve the way you think and feel. Finding music that you love to give yourself a boost.

Now that you know more about stress and its effects on the brain and body, you can begin to address ways to keep your stress hormones balanced and steady. By taking small steps to reduce everyday stress, you can avoid the risks of negative health complications and thrive in any situation life throws at you.


For more information on stress and anxiety, view the “Understanding and Managing Anxiety – The Neurochemistry of Calmness” resource here.

To learn more about meditation, read “Powerful Meditation” here.

Continue learning about stress relief by reading “Omega-3s Relieve Stress” here.

Explore the music and mind connection with “Performing Arts and the Brain”

Expand your knowledge on how exercise can positively affect your wellbeing with “What are the Benefits of Exercise?