Stress is a common part of our everyday lives. While a degree of stress is both necessary and healthy for our well-being, too much stress creates all sorts of problems for our personal and work life.
When you feel aggressive and under stress you are experiencing the effects of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (NA). Men who have scored high on aggression tests have been shown to have high levels of NA.
What makes some people more aggressive then others?
It has been shown that children exposed to situations that require an aggressive response tend to produce more noradrenaline later in life. Their experiences have created a higher set point for noradrenaline production. It’s likely that people working in an aggressive environment may also tend to have higher noradrenaline production levels than those with less aggression and confrontation in their workplace.
Beside being a neurotransmitter, noradrenaline is also a hormone released by the adrenal gland. It stimulates the heart, dilates the bronchial tract of the lung and gives contractile strength to arm and leg muscles. It is released in response to stress.
Most noradrenaline neurons are situated in a part of the brain called the locus coeruleus. From here their axons spread out to many parts of the brain where they can influence billions of neurons.
A Remarkable Neurotransmitter.
Noradrenaline (also called norephinephrine) is a remarkable neurotransmitter and neuroscientists still have much to learn about it. In some ways it seems to be involved with both positive and negative feelings. Noradrenaline pathways wind and pass through many parts of the brain and quite a lot are localised in the pleasure areas of the brain.
One way to learn about neurotransmitters is to study the effects of drugs that act upon their receptors. Amphetamines act in the body to increase levels of noradrenalin. Amphetamines produce a feeling of alertness and euphoria. This increases the amount of noradrenaline available to act on the receptors so the process is amplified. One of the reasons why amphetamines are widely used by long-distance truck drivers who want to drive beyond their normal capacity, is that this drug heightens alertness and also creates a feeling of well-being.
Noradrenaline can produce feelings of stress and high arousal – which if mismanaged, can lead to feelings of helplessness – and finally to depression. Some researchers have suggested that the depression may arise as a result of a depletion in noradrenaline and variations in its activity (Stone 1979). This vicious cycle can be very disruptive.
At times of stress we often turn the event over and over in our mind. Because noradrenaline also plays a role in learning, perhaps one of its functions is to force us to learn from dangerous and stressful experiences so that we don’t repeat mistakes.
Our response to stress is essentially personal.
However, society tends to influence and condition our responses. For example, if a motorist cuts you off the normal response is to yell abuse accompanied by rude finger signs. These are normal responses but not the only ones available to you. If a motorist cuts you off then you can:
(a) ignore them and do nothing;
(b) feel pity for them; or
(c) ram your vehicle into them.
You have quite a few options to apply to that situation. The choice is yours to make.
My work requires me to drive long distances. The Pacific Highway can be very stressful and I’ve been caught in traffic congestion that has turned a seven hour trip into a ten hour marathon. The impact of delays will be largely determined by my response. If I allow myself to get highly stressed then my heart rate increases, my blood pressure goes up and my muscles feel tense and painful. When noradrenaline is released it takes quite a while to subside.
I’ve noticed that if I allow traffic delays to get me highly stressed it makes me feel pretty awful but does nothing to move the car in front of me. If the release of noradrenaline and the stress hormones could make my car rise above the highway and take off like a jump jet then getting stressed would be productive. But of course it doesn’t.
Getting stressed changes me but it doesn’t change the situation. I might as well stay relaxed. So what I do now when I get into a traffic tangle is to say to myself … “I’m not going to give this traffic PERMISSION to get me stressed.”
By taking control I prevent the stress hormones from being released and enjoy the feeling of relaxation instead. It’s a simple system but it works. I’ve seen people who have been turned into stampeding buffalos by city traffic stay calm and relaxed just by applying this control.
lf we can control our attitude towards stressors then we have a realistic basis for controlling our reactions.
I like to use the word PERMISSION because it can he applied to so many stressful situations such as:
“Will I give this rude Board Member permission to disrupt my peace of mind?”
“Why should I give this staff member’s mistake permission to upset me and cloud my judgement”
“Will I give this aggressive impatient driver permission to spoil the pleasure of this journey?”
“Will I give this stubborn computer permission to send me into a rage?”
Choose to be angry or not to be angry.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to be angry and to kick things and feel peeved. Always remember though that you are not forced to feel that way.
A computer can’t physically generate anger in you unless you give it permission. The choice is yours!
I’ll admit that there are exceptions to the rule. The most obvious one is physical trauma. If you fall through an office window and end up lying in a rose garden covered in glass and bleeding from cuts and scratches, then nothing is going to reduce the amount of pain your body will feel. A positive attitude will aid recovery, but the pain and shock will still be evident at the time of the accident.
Attitude control through positive perception is a key way of minimising stress. Frequently we underestimate the extent to which we can control the events and circumstances that affect us.
When we are under stress our levels of brain noradrenaline are depleted. The depletion of noradrenaline is likely to make us give up and feel helpless toward the situation. When we face it again the cycle repeats itself and we experience even greater helplessness.
Benefits of exposure to intermittent stress.
Studies have shown that exposure to intermittent stress can often toughen us up. In 1975 a group of scientists (Weiss & Glazier 1975) trained mice by exposing them to brief episodes of cold—water swimming, uncontrollable shock or chemically induced noradrenaline depletion.
At the end of the experimental period the animals were sacrificed (a scientific euphemism) and their brains examined. The examination showed that they had higher noradrenaline levels than animals exposed to inescapable shock without training. This high level of noradrenaline assisted the animals to avoid feelings of helplessness.
We all need some stress but a brain full of noradrenaline will cloud rational thought. This neurotransmitter can have a big impact on mood. If you are very angry then your thought processes will be driven by noradrenaline. Logic will be the victim and sometimes that can lead to serious unintended consequences.
Stone, E.A., (1979). “Subsensitivity to norepinephrine as a link between adaptation to stress and antidepressant therapy: An hypothesis”. Research Communications in Psychology, Psychiatry and Behaviour. 4:241-255.
Weiss, J.M.. & Glasier, 1-1.1. (1975). “Effects of acute exposure to stressors on subsequent avoidance-escape behaviour.” Psychosomatic Medicine. 37. 522-534.Trackback URL