In Part 1 of my Approaching Stress series, I’ll start with a quick lesson on the general physiological responses to stress. By understanding how stress arrives in the body, we’ll be better at approaching stress and working alongside it.

Stress can present itself in a number of ways and is individual to the person experiencing it. Our bodies and daily lives are all filled with differences and intricacies that trigger stress and impact how it shows up. However, we all have the same body systems that react to stress. There are actions you can take to protect and alleviate these systems so you can move forward with your day and live well in the long-term.

Your HPA axis is your main stress response network. It consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. This axis is a complex glandular communication network responsible for the neuroendocrine adaptation component of stress response. The hypothalamus is located just above the brainstem with the pituitary gland. It begins the cascade of hormonal response by stimulating the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is told to release hormones into the bloodstream, reaching the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, ultimately releasing cortisol.


Known as the stress hormone, cortisol has a number of different actions. One being inhibiting other body processes in order to focus on dealing with the stressor at hand. This is essential in dealing with short-term stress. However, cortisol circulation can get stuck on the “on” mode, taking your body’s focus away from important processes to keep us well. It’s ideal for us to be have a cortisol spike in the morning to help us properly wake. Inversely, cortisol should slowly decreasing into the end of day so we can have restful sleep.

What are some cortisol triggers that occur in the human body? They likely include, but are not limited to perceived stress, sleep hygiene, and blood glucose changes.

Perceived Stress

The thoughts or feelings that you have about how much stress you are under at a given time and what has caused it. For example, putting certain things off throughout my week and then being afraid of actually getting them done.

Sleep Hygiene

When we don’t listen to our body’s true circadian rhythm, the body experiences stress. Melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, is thrown off and the brain is not able to go through its natural process of removing functional waste and toxins from the central nervous system.

Blood Glucose

Sharp changes in blood sugar levels puts stress on the body’s hormones. When it’s too high, insulin resistance occurs. When it is too low, we’re releasing cortisol because the body is stressed due to not enough glucose in the cells.

In Part 2 I will take what I’ve taught you about the physiology and triggers of HPA axis dysfunction. I’ll also dive deeper into approaching stress and applying the knowledge in your day-to-day. This will include implementation of different lifestyle practices, certain foods, adaptogens, and emotional understanding. Until then, start with 3-5 deep breaths and a short walk outside.