Scientific information on adrenaline and developmental stress shows that there is an interplay between stress hormones and the nervous system that activates stress-related conditions such as depression, Cushing’s syndrome, anorexia nervosa, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Adrenaline and developmental stress go hand-in-hand in the study of MindBody sciences.
Our books, The Flight From Intimacy and Healing Developmental Trauma both provide more complete explanations of how and why people use addiction and self-medication to cope with stressful relational interactions. We associate adrenaline with unrecognized and unhealed developmental shock, trauma, or stress usually stemming from early childhood events.
Post Traumatic Stress symptoms can show up much later in our adult relationships that resemble in some way the original events where we experienced either as developmental shock, trauma or stress. Actually we see them on a continuum depending on how severe an impact these events had on us, with stress being the least impactful of the three. To better understand the how the stress/trauma/shock continuum operates, let’s look at the impact of developmental stress on the MindBody.
Drs. George Chrousos and Phillip Gold at the National Institute of Child Health and Development, have pioneered much of the research in this area (2002). They discovered the complex interplay between the nervous system and stress hormones known as the hypothalamicpituitaryadrenal (HPA) axis. Their theory explains this interplay between the nervous system and stress hormones that activates stress-related conditions such as depression, Cushing’s syndrome, anorexia nervosa, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
They call this connection the “stress circuit” by which signals from the brain trigger the release of hormones as a response to some perceived stress. Here’s how it works. In response to a perceived stressor, the hypothalamus releases a hormone known as CRH that in turn acts on the pituitary gland, triggering a release of another hormone ACTH. Then ACTH signals the adrenal glands to release a number of hormonal compounds.
These compounds include epinephrine (or adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol. It is these three hormones that enable the body to react to a perceived threat. Epinephrine increases blood pressure and the heart rate, diverts blood to the muscles and speeds up reaction time. Cortisol releases sugar in the form of glucose from the body reserves to power the muscles and the brain into action. Normally cortisol shuts down the stress reaction after the perceived threat has passed by causing the hypothalamus to stop producing CRH.
As described in Lipton’s fractal evolution theory, while the body is in a protective mode to cope with the perceived threat, the three stress hormones switch off the hormones that are responsible for growth, reproduction, metabolism, and immunity. In the short term, this is useful in mobilizing the body systems that have to respond to the threat. However, adverse mindbody effects can occur if the stress hormones fail to shut down after the immediate threat has passed and continue circulating through the blood stream for long periods of time.Generally this is the result of either the effects of a stressful lifestyle, where the stress hormones are deemed necessary to continue that lifestyle, or the presence of unrecognized or unhealed developmental shocks, traumas and stresses from childhood (Lipton 2005, p. 147 – 150).
According to Chrousos and Gold, HPA hyperactivity resulting from developmental stress can inhibit reproductive functioning in anorexia nervosa and in starvation that shows up in trained ballet dancers, marathon runners, or triathletes. HPA hinders the production of male and female sex hormones.
He found, for example that men who run more than 45 miles a week produced high levels of ACTH and cortisol in response to the stress of extreme exercise. Women with extreme exercise regimens also ceased ovulating and menstruating. He also found that women, on the average, have higher cortisol levels, and he suggests that this may be why women are more vulnerable than men to depression, anorexia nervosa, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Much of Chrousos and Gold’s research on stress focused on the long-term effects of stress-related hormones on early childhood development, including prenatal development. That is what we are calling this developmental stress. They conclude that the HPA axis may be permanently altered as the result of extreme stress at any time in the life cycle, but they say the effects of developmental stress on young children are more severe. They found that major developmental stresses during early childhood strengthen the biochemical feedback loop between emotions and behavior. With each major stress, this feedback loop becomes stronger and stronger. By adulthood, individuals may have developed extremely sensitive stress circuits that cause them to overreact hormonally to comparatively minor threats.
Chrousos and Gold also found that prolonged exposure to stress-related hormones, particularly during prenatal development, put children at risk for retarded growth. This can put them in developmental stress states that they are biochemically and biologically unable to switch off, impairing their immune systems and making them more susceptible to disease. From a life-spectrum perspective, they become adults who are shorter than average in height and are more likely to have their life spans shortened by 15 to 20 years, unless interventions break the hormonal stress feedback loop. Developmental stress is also correlated with weight gain. Overeating at night is common among people who are under constant stress.
Adrenaline’s components, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, are among the most addictive substances in human physiology. Chemically they are very similar to cocaine and are part of the ASR caused by stress and developmental trauma. Developmental stresses and traumas can cause the brain and nervous system to constantly secrete a chronically low level of adrenaline. This is because the mindbody becomes hypervigilant, always on guard to protect against any danger of retraumatization.
One of the differences between epinephrine and cortisol is the speed at which they work. Epinephrine levels rise quickly to meet an emergency. They drop just as quickly when the emergency is over. Cortisol builds up more slowly and works on a larger scale. It is also slower to return to normal. Often the cortisol is just getting started while epinephrine level is retreating. These two stress hormones work together just fine as long as the stressful situation is not prolonged. When the threat is over and a recovery period follows, they go back to normal. That is the way this system was intended to work.
When epinephrine bursts reach the brain within seconds, the slower moving cortisol gets activated to support a fight or flight responses. When the epinephrine quickly retreats back to its normal state, allowing the body to relax, cortisol is still building up in the bloodstream. Continually going in and out of a state of rising and falling epinephrine keeps the cortisol level increasing.
The higher your cortisol level, the longer it takes to recover from the rush. When epinephrine goes back to normal while cortisol is still high, the dark side of these stress hormones surfaces, and anxious feelings and negative thoughts emerge. This all occurs just as the body is relaxing. This biochemical process is called the adrenaline rush and crash cycle. To get out of the crash cycle as quickly as possible, people then look for something to do that improves their mood.
The primary concern is that long-term elevated levels of cortisol in the blood stream affects the functioning of the whole body. We believe that untreated developmental shock, trauma, and stress are major causes of a chronically elevated cortisol level and the large number of stress related diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, obesity, emotional illnesses from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias.
When the HPA axis is running continually at a high level, it suppresses the ability of the immune system to fight infection. High cortisol levels as the result of high stress makes the body more susceptible to disease by switching off disease-fighting white blood cells. Conversely, too little of the HPA hormones has been found to lead to the development of autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks the body’s own cells. Obviously, more study of this relationship is needed.
Prenatally, long-term elevated levels of cortisol may even cause changes in the developing brain cells and cause schizophrenia. Psychiatrist Dolores Malaspina’s research (2006) linked prenatal adversity such as maternal infections, obesity, and malnutrition with the prevalence of schizophrenia.
Malaspina’s research on 100,000 women who were pregnant and living in Israel during the 1967 Six Day War revealed a very high risk for schizophrenia for fetuses who were exposed to the war stress in the first trimester: The risk was up to four times as high for females who were gestating at the time of the war. In addition, she found that the incidence was dramatically higher for children of mothers who lived in the areas that received the direct shelling (Malaspina, Harlap, Fennig, Corcoran, & Susser, 2003) .
If you would like to find out what self -help tools you can use to heal your addiction to adrenaline and your developmental stress, please check out to post on self-healing tools.
Applying This Research to Your Own Life
This developmental stress could be caused by minor episodes of emotional dysregulation or developmental shock or trauma or, more likely, from both. It often goes undetected but is visible in how we live our daily lives.
This Self-Inventory: Addiction-to-Adrenaline-Inventory will help you identify your everyday lifestyle experiences that could be related to an addiction to your own adrenaline. In our fast-paced lives, we often ignore these effects of developmental stress until they result in the breakdown of one of our major organ systems.
1. Weinhold, J. & Weinhold, B. (2008). The flight from intimacy. Novato, CA. New World Library.
2. Chorous, G. & Gold, P. (2002). Stress system malfunction could lead to serious, lifethreatening disease, NIH Backgrounder. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Child Health and Development.
3. Lipton, B. (2005). The biology of belief. Santa Rosa, CA: Mountain of Love/Elite Books.
4. Malaspina, D. (2006). In session with Dolores Malaspina, MD, MSPH: The impact of childhood trauma on psychiatric illness. Primary psychiatry, 13(7), 3336).
5. Malaspina, D., Harlap, S., Fennig, S., Corcoran, C., & Susser, E. (2003). Maternal stress and offspring schizophrenia risk.Psychiatry, 53 (suppl),168S.