The Stress Mechanism

Generally, all our behaviour relies on mechanisms that initiate behaviour. These mechanisms begin in the unconscious. All behaviour is initiated by unconscious processes.

In order to have true control and authorship over ourselves, we need to become consciously aware of these unconscious motivators. The motivators are rooted in the limbic system; a deeply unconscious and primitive area of our brains. Stress is the trigger that begins the motive for all behaviour. The stress response motivates us to respond to the stressor. In many ways, we must understand ourselves in terms of a machine with many, many mechanisms, mechanisms that need to be able to talk to each other effectively so as to reduce and regulate internal conflicts of interest. The communication pathways rely on chemicals called neurotransmitters, these are released by important organs in the body. So our brain is not so much an overall controller divorced from the rest of our body, it actually relies upon chemicals being released by our organs to send its signals. Some of these important organs are; the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, the adrenal gland, the thyroid and the reproductive organs (testes & ovaries). The chemical we are going to look at here is cortisol; cortisol in small doses helps the body deal with stress by turning down, turning off or tuning out processes that are unnecessary in processing stress. Processing stress involves initiating behaviour designed to remove ourselves from a stressful situation. The regrettable fact is this mechanism evolved to deal with a different kind of stress than modern society faces us with, but our evolution provided us with a controller and this controller is situated in the orbitofrontal cortex. For this controller to be effective, the pathways and signal transmitters, that develop as the brain grows, creating an environment of communication, need to be healthy and unhampered. For this they need a loving and nurtured environment to allow the brain to grow optimally.

Now cortisol’s role is to turn off or turn down anything not necessary to deal with immediate threat, to save energy and focus it all on initiating action that helps in dealing with stress. As mentioned, small amounts of cortisol are fine, even beneficial. But large amounts of cortisol over prolonged periods actually become a poison that damages our body and mind. Our body relies upon our immune system to fight off disease and infection, plus there are other systems for maintaining health, renewal and repair of body and mind. Stress turns down or turns off these systems because cortisol is released, sending the signal to shut down processes unnecessary in responding to stress. Prolonged stress exposes the body to the risk of disease and infection, obstructing our body’s ability to protect itself and repair itself.

Some of the stress related ailments you might already be aware of are;

  • IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome); the amygdala has pathways to the digestive system and our stress response interferes with digestion as digestion uses energy and cortisol is about preserving energy to deal with stress so digestion is hampered by stress, leading to the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
  • Alopecia (hair loss and bald spots); once again the production of hair uses up energy and the body is trying to save energy.
  • Ulcers
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Addictions; stress, for some peculiar reason, creates the need for comforting repetitive behaviour as a means of tuning out stress response. So, overeating, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, smoking, etc. are all due to stress (most people who smoke have the mistaken belief that smoking helps with stress, the truth is it actually is caused by and causes stress. The nicotine angle is a smoke screen: pun intended)


But Stress actually adversely affects our ability to fight off everything from the common cold, to the Big C (Cancer). And stress is a major contributor to the visible effects of aging because the skin cells that would normally be repairing themselves, are turned off. The system for giving our hair it’s colour can be turned off leading to grey hairs

Another thing stress does that you might not be so aware of is; it saves brain energy. Our thought processes use up a lot of energy and attention. Our response to stress it to react immediately to the danger or threat and for this we need all our brain energy and attention to focus on our response to stress. Higher cognitive processes are not required and use up essential resources, so stress turns off our higher brain functions, everything from vocabulary, to calculating abilities and complex reasoning, to areas of the brain that deal with conscience, will, guilt and empathy. Even memory can be tuned out or turned off due to stress. Have you ever been so stressed you can’t think straight?

Stress can turn off just about whatever it chooses and we each behave and respond to stress in different ways.

This is what stress does in a healthy and developed body, but it does something even more detrimental to our health if we are exposed to prolonged stress as we our bodies and minds are developing, it turns off development.

If, as the brain is growing and developing and it’s connections and pathways that is uses to communicate with are making their connections, as it does from an early foetal stage up and through our twenties and beyond, the brain is at any time subject to high, prolonged periods of stress where cortisol is released, areas of physical and mental development can either be slowed or brought to a stop.

Now while it is currently understood that the brain maintains some level of plasticity (can continue to grow and adapt) throughout life. There are certain key times in its early development that have a “window of opportunity” and if for any reason that window is missed, key areas of the brain do not develop properly. It is hypothesised that one of those key areas is the mechanism for turning off the stress response and the impairment of the production of the neurotransmitter, Oxytocin. Oxytocin’s primary role has been connected to maternal behaviour, fertility and childbirth. But it seems to have a secondary role, and that is in soothing the stress response. And this makes sense in a kind of way, because is it not the primary caregiver’s (the mother) role to sooth the crying baby? When a baby is in distress, the mechanism for soothing is undeveloped and requires the comfort and soothing of the mother in order to regulate. The baby learns regulation from the primary caregiver, the attachment process to the primary caregiver is essential in our learning of how to self sooth. Without it we may never learn to be able to turn off stress. Stress may be stuck on. Then thrown in to our modern stressful world, the subsequent adult might then have a negative and destructive reaction to stress because it cannot turn off hyperarousal and relies on someone else to turn off their stress response because the skill has remained unlearned and the mechanism undeveloped.

This “dysfunction”, or “dysregulation” can be seen in the symptoms of a wide range of diagnosed* behavioural and attention disorders;

  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Autistic Spectrum Disorders
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Dyslexia
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder


*As stated elsewhere, I consider a system of diagnosis based purely on symptoms and that overlooks the biology, structures and processes of body and brain as fallible at best, and downright misleading at worse. And it may be that all the above “disorders” have a common contributing cause that just manifests a different combination of symptoms depending upon which pathways are affected.

Now the implication of the undeveloped mechanism for turning off stress means that the body’s stress response may be permanently set to a state of hyperarousal. This would lead to a person constantly seeking a cause or reason to pin their emotional state upon, or seeking some form of fulfilment or reward with which to increase dopamine and tune out the stress. The latter leading to the impulsivity associated with some of the above disorders. The state of hyperarousal would lead to hypervigilance, i.e. seeking out or constantly being on the lookout (vigilant) for implicit threat or danger, leading to such things as paranoia, jealousy, suspicion, even where there is no apparent cause or concern for such attitudes. Combine this with an unconscious memory of the original cause of stress that triggered the initial imbalances, installed in our emotional memory (stored in the amygdala) would lead to a person being unconsciously hypervigilant for the potential for a repeat of the original misdeed or transgression that triggered the initial stress response.

Here we now have the borderline’s switch from love to hate explained in terms of superficial feelings being tolerated, but deeper feelings being perceived as a threat to survival and a physical source of threat needing to be established to justify and explain the emotional/fear response.  Fear is then transformed in to hate in order to explain, make sense of, control and justify an unconscious and unexplained emotional response.

In the same vein; an abused child may grow up to be an abuser

And a child that has been abandoned early in life, may be haunted by the powerful unconscious terror of abandonment and the threat to survival that first abandonment initially posed. This would critically affect later relationships and may lead them to do the abandoning first, so as not to face their unconscious terror of the prospect or potential for a repeat of the threat to survival that their first abandonment posed. Alternatively they may try and provoke abandonment by attacking, belittling, devaluing, etc. in an unconsciously motivated attempt to push the other away. Both give the illusion of control over the terror, but the unconscious truth is, it is the terror doing the controlling. Or, more accurately, the “emotional brain” (The limbic system; primarily the amygdalae), working to keep you safe from something it remembers experiencing as a threat to your survival.