Monday, November 4, 2013

Where hormones rule – Part 2: about stress and competition

Can you remember your latest experience of waiting? My fellow Mumbaikars have a rich experience of waiting for the famous local train to arrive or for the traffic to clear. I have myself waited for one and half hour in shining afternoon sun for a friend to turn up. Some of you may also recall waiting for the doctor to come out of the operation theatre and tell how the surgery on your loved one went.
We all know that it is a stressful experience. Waiting for a traffic jam to clear even for ten minutes changes your mental and physical state. You don’t sense most of these changes, though. The blood pressure goes up. Digestion slows down. Immune system starts working at a very low level. Even reproductive system is shut down. The glucose in blood goes up.
What is going on? Waiting is a familiar situation to the brain from Old Times (please read Part 1 of this article about Old Times). Our ancestors waited for hunting, fights with enemies and many other things. Trained for this, your brain is now preparing you for a long period of trouble. All the systems less important in current situation are shutting down. The energy is being diverted to more important systems, like muscles, lungs and heart. But how exactly is the brain achieving this?
Enter Cortisol. A powerful chemical that rules us in periods of stress. We call such chemicals as Hormones. There is a part of our body, called Adrenal Gland, that makes this chemical. Brain orders the gland to make Cortisol. It mixes with blood and makes all necessary changes as the blood circulates through the body.
Small amount of Cortisol produces good effects. It gives you a burst of energy, better vision, memory and hearing, less pain and also a pleasing sensation. This is what the young people experience when they ride their bikes very fast. They are creating controlled stress. They know that they are going to relax in a moment. But when Cortisol remains in blood for a long time, it produces all the harmful effects that we know as stress related problems. They include high blood pressure, diabetes, fragile bones and susceptibility to infections.
Now let’s turn to those Diwali shoppers of Part 1 that you have tagged as successful people. They are under influence of another powerful hormone called Testosterone. This magical chemical is made in the tastes of males and ovaries of females. Testosterone springs into action when brain senses another age old situation – Competition.
All societies that we know have a ladder of social status. We are all aware of our place on the ladder, even though we do not always admit it. Our brain has been trained by the struggle to climb the ladder in Old Times. It knows that going up means a better chance of survival.
The struggle to improve our status brings in competition. Testosterone is brain’s formula for winning. Apart from preparing your body, Testosterone also increases risk taking and confidence in you. It makes you more alert and quick. Many times, these qualities help you to win.
But now Testosterone starts taking you on a ride. We know that brain commands the body through hormones. But it happens the other way round too. With Testosterone in our blood, we become more confident, talk loudly, become more aggressive. The brain tracks all this, and concludes that we are in competition. So it makes even more Testosterone. You are now in a loop.
This is a normal picture of investors when the stock market is going up. Excitement breeds even more excitement. After a while it reaches ridiculous proportions, till the bubble bursts and Cortisol takes us in its arms.
Cortisol has its own loop too, one which is really bad for us. When you are feeling down, your voice lowers, movement slows down, you are less confident. Brain gets these signals, and starts making more Cortisol. This negative loop can have a disastrous effect on your mood, leading to panic attacks.
As a rule, I have stayed away from prescribing any cure. But I want to give one here, something I have practiced. You know that the body sends signals to the brain. You can use this when you feel you are going down the Cortisol spiral. A nice meal, massage, modest exercise can create a feeling of well being and break the negative loop.
When you are anxiously waiting for the train, even smiling to yourself can make a difference. No harm in trying.

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