How to have a brain like Superman, part II

What I hoped I looked like on my driveway when I discovered a 6 foot long Rorschach oil spill. Image courtesy of JULIEN TROMEUR, again.



Black, shiny, and all over my driveway like an enormous Rorschach, calling every ten-year old boy for a mile saying “You waaaant to sliiiiiiiide in the oiiiiiiiillll…”. It was mighty. My car was sick.

Of course, it meant that, short of broomsticks or modified Ford Anglias, we weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. It also meant our mechanic would be rubbing his fat little hands together, and we’d be coughing up for the bill.

In my mind I immediately went into some alarm, then machine gun listed the consequent problems we faced. I ploughed into rapid-fire problem solving, knowing that we had a deadline to get the kids to school. We flew through the scenarios: how to get the kids to school, then us to work, then home if we left the car with the mechanic, and how we’d get around for the next couple of days and how we’d pay the bill in the middle of other bills, this being the end of the month.

Standing apart from myself at the time, I was interested to note what was happening as I stood, admittedly slightly slack-jawed, in our driveway. Unable to think what Superman would do, let alone execute it, I was forced to blog. So let’s analyse this a bit more closely and then draw out the take homes.

Remember this?

Last post remember we talked about two nervous systems (NS) we have, and how we get a gas pedal and brake pedal effect.

(Quick recap: Two high level nervous systems, the Central NS and the Peripheral NS. A division of the Peripheral NS is the Autonomic NS, which is broken into the Sympathetic NS (Gas Pedal) and Parasympathetic NS (Brake Pedal).)

Part of the way this operates is by using a tricky little loop.

A tricky little loop, also called The Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis

With any situation where we perceive stress, our body wants to help us out by giving us the resources to do something. One of the neat things it does works on a little feedback loop we have, which we’re going to talk about here. It’s called the HPA Axis, which is a fantastic acronym and makes you glad you have acronyms in the first place, or we’d spend all our time saying the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis. HPA is much tidier. And easier to spell.

H is for Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is a small congregation of neurons placed near the top of the brain stem, which runs up into your skull from the spine. It’s about as big as a cashew nut, but not quite so hard or tasty. For a job, this little guy spends his time managing processes in the autonomic nervous system, chief among them being things like hunger and thirst, temperature and circadian rhythms.

Crucially, it also links our nervous system to our endocrine (glands and hormones) system, through the Pituitary.

Hang in there…

P is for Pituitary

This guy sits at the base of your brain under the skull, right near the hypothalamus and has, for a long time, been called the Master Gland. It’s under the control of the hypothalamus. For it to operate, the hypothalamus releases chemicals which travel the short distance to the pituitary, resulting in the release of hormones and other chemicals from the pituitary gland itself.

One of these hormones released from the pituitary, let’s just call it ACTH, concerns us here.

A is for Adrenal Glands

These boys ride shotgun on your kidneys and are responsible for the release of, among others, stress hormones, both adrenaline and cortisol. Their release is registered back at HQ by the hypothalamus, closing the tricky little loop. This last leg of the feedback loop determines how much more or less chemical the hypothalamus releases to the pituitary… and so on.

Time to come up for air

Ok. Take a breath, have a mouthful of coffee. Done that? (Good. Caffeine’s a stimulant and helps you concentrate.)

Back to the loop. This loop is directly affected by stress, both physical and psychological. When you need some nervous system gas, this is part of how it happens.

And of these two hormones released by the adrenal glands to help you cope, adrenaline (also called epinephrine) is generally a sprinter, and cortisol is generally a marathoner. Adrenaline is fast and short-lived, while cortisol is slower but runs for longer.

In the short-term, enough adrenaline helps you leap elegantly from your desk when cars come through your window. Within a short while, it disappears from your system. Not so with cortisol. Because it’s slower acting, it kicks in a little later but hangs around for longer, kind of like the dinner guest that won’t leave, even if you take your teeth out and start talking about your dicky gallstones while she puts her curlers in starts brushing her teeth in the lounge.

The bad news

Persistent stress, such as bullying at school or work, deadlines, unrealistic pressures, financial problems, marital disharmony and so on, are all long-lasting stressors. In response to these, we secrete increased levels of cortisol over a long period.

This causes structural brain changes, most notably in areas that concern memory and therefore learning.

So here’s the take home bit

The HPA Axis does its job to keep you on top of stress. It releases adrenaline and cortisol into your system to help you. Cortisol in moderation = good. Prolonged cortisol secretion = bad.

Look therefore for things that can help you reduce cortisol, such as

  • touch, especially massage
  • meditation
  • laughing
  • black tea?
  • and keep a good sleep routine

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

HPA Axis (sounds like something out of a bad spy story!), Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, Adrenal Glands

What have you noticed?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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