Adrenaline

The Benefits, Disadvantages, and Dangers of Adrenaline

Published on February 20, 2021 by First Responder Wellness

The first responder community encounters the full spectrum of human emotion, experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows. First responders experience moments of terror as well as heartwarming glances into the best of humanity. In times of crisis, a first responder’s heart rate and blood pressure elevate, and their mind becomes hyper-aware and laser-focused. 

Some people may even experience increased stamina, strength, and delays in pain response, accounting for superhuman-like abilities in life-threatening situations. What accounts for this life-saving “flight or flight” response? Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is a potent hormone that stimulates our sympathetic nervous system and helps our bodies act quickly, increasing the blood flow to the brain and muscles so we can not only run faster but think faster in times of crisis. 

Benefits of Adrenaline and How It Works

An adrenaline rush can produce a feeling of being on overdrive. People may also experience mental clarity, euphoria, and a considerable increase in energy. Aside from these good feelings, adrenaline can be life-saving, allowing you to accomplish tasks to get you or someone else out of harm’s way. This is why the “fight or flight” hormone is crucial for first responders. 

When someone experiences a terrifying situation, sensory information reaches the region of the brain called the hypothalamus. This then activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, and a signal is sent to the adrenal glands, triggering them to release epinephrine into the bloodstream. Physiologically, this causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, sending more blood flow to the muscles, making the pupils dilate, and causing rapid breathing. Airways in the lungs open up, allowing as much oxygen as possible with every breath. Any extra oxygen is sent to the brain, which increases alertness and senses such as sight and hearing to become sharper. Epinephrine also triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream, supplying ample amounts of energy to the body, allowing it to fight hard or run fast. 

This all happens at such a quick rate that people are not aware of it happening right away. The response is so efficient that it begins before the brain’s visual center has a chance to fully process what is happening. Due to this, some people can quickly react and get out of danger’s way before they even think about what they are doing.  

When the initial surge of adrenaline declines, and there is still a perceived threat, the hypothalamus activates a second wave. This second part of the stress response system is known as the HPA axis, incorporating the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and adrenal glands. It relies on a series of hormonal signals that keep the “gas pedal” down. If the mind continues to view something as dangerous, a series of signals transfer from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland and finally to the adrenal gland, releasing cortisol, which keeps the body on high-alert. Finally, when the threat passes, cortisol levels fall and the parasympathetic system—responsible for “resting and digesting”—is activated, acting as the brake.  

The Disadvantages of Excess Adrenaline

The saying that “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” is valid in the case of adrenaline. Typically, the body’s stress response is there to help you. However, repeated activation of this response can cause harm. As first responders experience stressful and traumatic events at incredibly high rates throughout their career, stress management is essential for mitigating the harmful effects of prolonged stress on the body and mind. 

According to SAMHSA, the immediate downsides to experiencing extended stress responses, either due to a long call, or dealing with the stress after a call, can lead to problems with sleeping, irritability, impatience, and changes in appetite. Often, first responders experience profound fatigue due to working long hours with limited downtime, sleep, and relaxation. Being a first responder can potentially feel like being on an adrenaline roller coaster where the highs are incredible but the lows are exhausting. When the body’s adrenaline is depleted, most people will experience an energy crash, which can make accomplishing tasks after an intense situation feel strenuous.

The Dangers of Prolonged Stress Response

Switching between overdrive and exhaustion at a moment’s notice can become taxing. Although a surge in adrenaline may help first responders save lives, dealing with prolonged stress response can cause unhealthy side effects. This is because many people may find it hard to put the brakes on stress. 

Chronic low-level stress keeps the second part of the stress response system, the HPA axis, activated. This is like leaving a motor idling for too long. Over time, this contributes to health problems. According to Harvard Medical School, persistent surges of adrenaline can damage blood vessels and arteries and increase blood pressure, which raises the risk of strokes or heart attacks. While cortisol is released to replenish the body’s energy after the initial stress response, prolonged levels can inadvertently lead to the buildup of fat tissue and weight gain. 

 

While dealing with the impact of chronic stress can be challenging, it is vital to seek help and develop healthy coping mechanisms to mitigate your risks of developing serious health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental illnesses. Taking practical steps to manage your stress, such as recognizing your body’s physiological response, talking with a health professional, getting regular exercise, and allowing time for relaxation, can help alleviate some of the negative impacts. Struggling with stress on your own may lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms that may put your health at further risk. First Responder Wellness is here to help you develop the right skills to manage stress effectively and establish a path toward better mental health and well-being. If you are struggling with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder, you are not alone, and we can help. Call us for more information at (888) 743-0490