Part 1 – How Does What We Think Influence our Stress Hormones?

I’ve been slowly making my way through an incredible book that has me gripped with fascination! It’s based on the notation that nothing is set when it comes to our biology, in that everything is up for grabs dependent upon the beliefs we have about things.

Everywhere you turn there are people saying that stress is bad. That we must reduce it in our lives.

Like everything in life, there are more shades of grey than black and white!

I want to explore the possibility that our beliefs about how we see what happens to us in our life determine the impact that this ends up having on our health.

Let’s look in simple terms about what happens in our body when we experience a stressful response. This can occur whether it is a response to external stimuli, such as running from a robber, or from ruminating on stressful thinking (which in today’s modern world is what is happening the majority of the time).

Two hormones that are released in the body during a stressful event are cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (or DHEA for short). A hormone is a ‘messenger’ in the body. It is released in order to tell the body to ‘do’ something. A huge one – often called our ‘king’ hormone is insulin. It’s main job is to remove the sugar from our blood in to our cells in the body.

Cortisol and DHEA are both released by your adrenal glands during times of stress, but they serve different roles. Cortisol helps turn sugar and fat in to energy and improves the ability of the body and brain to use that energy. It also suppresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction, and growth.

DHEA on the other hand is a neurosteriod, which is exactly what it sounds like: a hormone that helps your brain grow. In the same way that testosterone helps your body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps your brain grow stronger from stressful experiences.

It also counters some of the effects of cortisol, which is a good thing because all that unused blood sugar that has been released in to the body from our mind created stressful event needs moping up, and guess what hormone does that? Yes insulin. So cortisol suppresses some biological functions as mentioned above, but DHEA counters the effect of some of this by speeding up wound repair and enhancing immune function.

We do need both these hormones. Neither is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, the ratio of these two hormones can influence the long term consequences of stress, especially when that stress is chronic.  Higher levels of cortisol can be associated with worse outcomes, such as impaired immune function and depression. In contrast, higher DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, neurodegeneration, and other diseases we typically think of as stress related.

The ratio of DHEA to cortisol is called the growth index of a stress response. A higher growth index – meaning more DHEA – helps people thrive under stress. It predicts academic persistence and resilience in college student, as well as higher GPAs. It’s associated with greater focus, less dissociation, and superior problem solving skills as well as fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms afterwards. Its short, it is a great predictor of resilience.

In studies that have looked at how we perceive a stress response, they have found that our ‘perception’ can influence our ratio of cortisol to DHEA.  In one study by Psychologist Alia Crum, participants were shown one of two videos about stress. One opened with the message, “Most people think that stress is negative… but actually research shows that stress is enhancing.” The video went on to describe how stress can improve performance, enhance well being, and help you grow. The other video that the other half of the participants watched started with an ominous, “Most people don’t know that stress is negative.. but research shows that stress is even more debilitating than you expect.” The video went on to describe how stress can harm your health, happiness and performance at work.

The interesting thing about this is that both videos cited real research, so in this sense, both were true. But each video was designed to activate a specific perception of stress to see how it would influence how the participant’s bodies responded to the stress that followed.

The researches wanted to see if changing people’s perceptions of stress could modify this measure of resilience. Could a 3 min video alter this key ratio of stress hormones?

Amazingly, yes. The video’s had no affect on participant’s cortisol levels. Everyone’s cortisol went up regardless of which video they watched. However, participants who watched the ‘stress is enhancing’ video released more DHEA and had a higher growth index then participants who had watched the ‘stress is debilitating’ video. Viewing stress as enhancing made it so – not in some subjective, self reported way, but in the actual ratio of hormones produced by the body. It created a different biological reality.

But isn’t this just a placebo response? Well, I want to show you that it goes much deeper than that. Stay tuned for Part 2.

Referenced from: The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal,PhD.