Stress response: Three circuits walk into a bar….

When stress happens, we have what’s called a “hyper arousal” response, which affects the brain and the body. This stress response happens for a good reason, because it prepares the body to be super functional. From an evolutionary perspective, we need to be ready to flee from a giant tiger (or a Carole Baskin), or something else that was going to eat us. So to protect ourselves, we need to be ready to fight, flee or freeze.

From neuroscientist and stress hormone researcher Bruce McEwen’s work, we know that there are three circuits that are activated when we experience this stress response. These circuits are the pre-frontal cortex (the PFC), the amygdala and the hippocampus. Let’s take a look at these three circuits, and what happens whey they walk in the bar ready to duke it out.

First, the pre-frontal cortex is like our sense of consciousness, its our thinking brain, responsible for thinking, judgement, and a sense of emotional control. The PFC is like the driver of the car. The PFC walks in calmly and takes a seat. 

Second, the amygdala is like the alarm bell, or a surveillance system. The amygdala is our emotional center and also stores memories of events. So it helps us in dangerous situations, but it does that by overriding and shutting down our thinking brain. The amygdala walks in with a chip on its shoulder, and explodes when it sees that PFC has grabbed the prime seat.  

Thirdly, the hippocampus is like our shock absorber. The hippocampus provides the contextual analysis of the situation, and can thus suppress the fight or flight reaction. The hippocampus grabs the amygdala, and says ‘hold on, he was here first, and you had that seat last time.’ 

What happens next? Does the hippocampus calm the amygdala down? Does the amygdala break free and clock the PFC?

Or maybe, because we are getting better at managing our stress, the bartender simply assess the situation and say, “1, 2, 3, BREATHE!!! Everyone stops. Stress drops. The PFC exhales a big sigh of relief, the hippocampus breaks into a big grin, and the amygdala says “curses, foiled again!”