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What’s Stress Got to Do… Got to Do With It?

What’s Stress Got to Do… Got to Do With It?

Understanding the stress response and its affect on the body

stressguy

          As I am currently in the process of moving, I have been thinking a lot about stress. We are all familiar in some way or another with the emotional state of stress. Whether it be work, school, a performance, or any other life happenings, we have all felt the toll that stress can have on our bodies. But really what is stress? How do our bodies respond to stress? What patterns do we often fall into that exacerbates the problems associated with stress? What effects can this stress have on the voice? How can singing be used as a therapy for stress? I am hoping to try and answer some of these questions and more in the next few weeks of posts. But to begin, let’s dig a bit deeper to the core of our stress response.

I just found out I didn’t get the apartment I spent three weeks searching for, viewing, and preparing to move into. The bank wouldn’t approve my application for a line of credit and won’t return my calls. I am just hanging up with the doctor’s office that is telling me further diagnostic blood tests are required, when I realize my sole source of income for the next year is tied up in the contract letters that are sitting in random piles around my room unsigned, and past due. My heart begins to race, I am sweating, I feel like I have lots of energy but my body feels worn and exhausted. These familiar feelings have been surfacing for a week now and I can’t seem to kick this cold or flu or whatever the hell this is. My mind is reeling and my focus seems worse, which is only making me feel more stressed. I cough as a sharp pained fatigue seems to electrify my vocal folds and run along the back of my throat ending in a brief interval of relief for my throbbing throat. I wait in helpless anticipation for the next diaphragmatic explosion hoping that I can just fall asleep and avoid it entirely.

          We have all had those days where the initiators of stress seem to build on top of each other. This inevitably triggers a series of bodily responses that are a result of some important physiological changes. Cortisol is the hormone (a chemical released by our bodies to influence cells and other chemicals that regulate our body’s physiology) responsible for a large component of our stress response. When I say stress response I am talking about the way our body is affected (or responds) to stress.

A schematic diagram of the main chemicals and structures involved in the stress response.  An arrow going away from a structure indicates release, and then whatever the arrow is going towards shows the destination of what is being released.

A schematic diagram of the main chemicals and structures involved in the stress response. An arrow going away from a structure indicates release, and then whatever the arrow is going towards shows the destination of what is being released. Note: the hypothalamus another hormone-releasing structure but is located in the brain.

          Contrary to popular belief, cortisol is not actually responsible for those “heart racing, sweating, high energy” feelings we sometimes experience during the initial part of our stress response. When our bodies experience stress (externally like an emotional response to something; or internally like a physiological response to hunger) structures called the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys release two important compounds: cortisol and catecholamines (cat-eh-kol-a-meenz). The catecholamines are just a group of compounds that initiate the “fight-or-flight response” in our bodies (epinephrine being the most overused of these compounds on popular tv shows or movies like Jason Statham’s “Crank”). That “fight-or-flight” response is our body’s primitive response that prepares us for a high-energy scenario and gives us the option to run away from a stressor or roundhouse kick it in the jaw (depending of course on preference).

adrenal glands have been highlighted to show their general position in the body

The adrenal glands have been highlighted to show their general position in the body

schematic diagram showing adrenal glands on top of kidneys.

A schematic diagram showing adrenal glands on top of kidneys.

          Cortisol is a hormone that is in our bodies in regular levels all the time to keep things in a calm and balanced state (called homeostasis). When we are stressed however, an excess of corisol (plus catecholamines) is released from the adrenal glands and it is the age-old tale of having “too much of a good thing.” Here are some of the goods and bads of having too much cortisol:

1)      In a fasted or starving state, cortisol actually encourages the production of a molecule called glucose that our body normally gets from food for energy.

2)      In a hypoxic state (suffocation or even just trouble getting enough oxygen), cortisol helps regulate the resulting acidity of our bodies environment, which left unchecked can be very dangerous.

3)      Cortisol basically tells the cells that regulate our immunity and defend our bodies against things that make us sick to stop fighting the good fight. It prevents them from multiplying, which they would normally do in response to a threat. This leaves us susceptible to infection and sickness

4)      Cortisol is usually present in the memory-centre of the brain (the hippocampus), but excess levels actually cause destruction of brain cells and a decrease in the functional parts of the hippocampus (known to biologists as atrophy).

lower_your_stress_level

          There are of course other ways in which cortisol affects the body, but as with most of the science of the human body, there is much still left unknown. Based on the above information though, it is hopefully a little clearer why our bodies experience stress the way that they do. The sweating, heart-racing, high energy state (followed by fatigue due to lack of energy resources) is a result of the catecholamines that are released by the adrenal glands alongside cortisol. Cortisol is therefore responsible for trying to produce enough energy to “fight-or-flight”, preventing immune function resulting in imminent sickness, and also inhibiting brain function making it hard to remember (among other things). Can you imagine how some of these responses might then go on to affect the muscles and physiology surrounding the voice?

stressed-out-child

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