The human body is designed to respond to stressful situations. Our body’s hormone control centre, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), regulates hormones including cortisol, a major stress hormone.
Cortisol is released when a physical or psychological stressor is present to help initiate our body’s defensive responses. This includes the fight-or-flight response, which acts on multiple systems in the body to respond to stress. Typically, the body signals the HPA to stop releasing cortisol when the stressor is dealt with and the stress response ends.
However, chronic or extreme stress can lead to disruptions in the HPA axis that impair the body’s ability to return to a calm state.
Trauma, especially when severe or prolonged, can cause the body to stay in “defence mode,” which results in symptoms such as:
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, and inflammation
- Increased “threat detection,” including being jumpy, easily startled, or “on edge”
- Feeling hypervigilant or needing to scan the environment for danger
- Difficulty relaxing or falling asleep
- Shaking or crying
- Feeling restlessness, tingling, or numbness
These symptoms may be especially present for healthcare providers who are required to return to work and perform their duties at a high level under significant persistent stress.