Biology of the Stress Response

Modified: 23rd Sep 2019
Wordcount: 1526 words

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‘Making sense of Simon and Anthea’s situation through understanding the biology of the stress response’

Understanding the biological basis of stress helps to appreciate the nature of it, positive or negative, the brain reacts in the same way; how we choose to feel about a situation deemed stressful, depends on the outcome. Looking at Simon and Anthea’s case, their responses to stressors have different effects on each other. As explained by (Selye,1978[1956]), stress is defined as a position of disarray that causes feelings of overwhelming emotions, often leading individuals to suffer a breakdown and being incapable of rationalizing events, however it can be universal.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the body’s central stress response system. The HPA axis is a powerful expressive structure, linking the central nervous system and endocrine system. The HPA releases a secretion of hormones such as adrenaline, which increases alertness to aid the individual into dealing with an emergency – the stress response.

The stress response is a synchronised ‘must have’ consequence to a supposed threat. The stress response has two parts, the sympathetic branch; signalling the ‘flight’ response, and the parasympathetic branch; the ‘fight’ response. The HPA axis functions by reacting to the secreted hormones triggered by the response from the amygdala, the main position of emotional perception and behaviour. This results in the detection of danger or threat before being consciously aware of it. As (Boecker et al., 2008), identifies, the amygdala releases Corticotropin  releasing  factor (CRF) to incite a reaction from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). (Heinrichs et al., 2003) explains, the secretion of CRF alerts the second part of the stress response, and when CRF fixes to CRF receptors on the anterior pituitary gland, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) is released; to signal the adrenal glands to secrete corticosteroids into the blood.

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When an individual experiences minor everyday life challenges, and the response of the HPA axis is effective, conscious contemplation is deemed safe so that the stressor is diminished; the brain and body return to a state of calm, the HPA axis and SNS become less active allowing hormone levels to balance back to normal. If the individual continues to feel unsafe or threatened, where experiencing a serious chronic stressful situation, the stress response is protracted and the level of stress becomes inveterate. (Uvnäs-Moberg, Arn and Magnusson, 2005), identifies that the secretion of oxytocin may accompany the response of the HPA axis to a given stressor. Glucocorticoids are produced as a result of the HPA axis activity, they have an essential function to mobilise the body’s fat and energy reserves for release into the blood stream. This enables the individual to endure a high energy exertion or to flee. Glucocorticoids are destructive and harmful to neurons and other cells if present for an extended period of time in high doses.

A process is available to control the level of glucocorticoids to switch off further production should it be too high. Neurons in the brain carry equipped receptors (GRs), glucocorticoid receptors to which cortisol and corticosterone bind to when they are released into the bloodstream. 

In relation to Simon and Anthea, A couple with a young family, appear to be facing a stressful situation in regards to how their family dynamics and lifestyle are affected by the new pregnancy, Simon currently out of work for medical issues and the added pressure on Anthea to be the sole earner until baby arrives. These recent life events are identified as Simon and Anthea’s stressor. As suggested by (Kendler and Prescoot, 2006), the beginning of episodes of major depression and generalised anxiety disorder has been connected to such stressful life events. Both Simon and Anthea will be experiencing emotional reactions associated with the hormone activities of the amygdala sending messages to the HPA axis. Their stress responses. Looking back at (Selye, 1978[1956]), ‘it’s how you take it’ explanation of stress, Simon and Anthea are only focusing on negatives; rather than looking at the positives, being that they have healthy children and what the lose out on with Simon’s unemployment, they will gain more family time. It is suggested by Selye, that perhaps if they did not focus on the bad points, but looked at all the good gains, they would both feel less stressed about their situation, meaning more rationalised behaviours and emotions would surface.

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By looking at the biomedical model, which focuses on purely biological factors and excludes psychological, environmental, and social influences; and taking a biopsychosocial approach in regards to Simon and Anthea, will help to understand their situation better, by looking at the features the biomedical model does not. By taking psychological, environmental and social influences into consideration, professionals will have a greater ability to empathise and distinguish the family’s stress factors and help devise how best to cope with them. Taking into account Simon and Anthea’s current life events of pregnancy, unemployment, poor physical health on Simon’s part, and anxiety on Anthea’s part, their whole situation has become one large stressor, making it difficult for either one of them to digest. According to (Totes, F 2010), the biopsychosocial approach helps to decipher those stress factors, resulting in reduced activities of their HPA axis, if effective; returning their bodies and minds to a state of balance and calm. By focusing on each individual’s psychological factors, such as mood, behaviours and personalities, some traits will be discovered as genetic, meaning a better understanding of how best to manage Simon and Anthea will be possible. Looking into the endorphins hypothesis by ( Morgan, 1985), suggests that increased levels of neurochemicals known as endorphins in the brain, create the basis of the effect on mood. 

(Kaplan, 2001) looks at the management of mental fatigue, using meditation to restore mental energies. By understanding the biology of stress, professionals can provide solutions for people experiencing such symptoms. (Jevning et at., 1992; Newberg and Iversen, 2003) say with endured practice, meditation can lead to reduced cortisol levels. Simon and Anthea could look try this to self – help.

In conclusion, stress is perceived as a negative impact on the brain, however there are positive effects of stress; we need the stimuli of stress to ensure HPA axis activities in the brain to survive, only individuals stress responses differ vastly. Some people are genetically stronger willed, and feel they can resolve any problem, where others become completely overwhelmed by stressors in every day life, such as Simon and Anthea have. These over reactions can be explained by looking at psychosocial factors, to determine if they have had an impact on their coping strategies; the biopsychosocial approach, understanding the biological basis of stress. 


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  • Toates, F., (2010), Baker, M., Vossler, A and Langdridge, D. (eds) Understanding drug treatments: a biopsychosocial approach, in understanding councelling and psychotherapy, London, sage publications. 
  • Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Arn, I. and Magnusson, D. (2005). The psychobiology of emotion: the role of the oxytocinergic system. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 12(2), pp.59-65.


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