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Survivor Mode: Stress and Your Brain

Good stress, bad stress, and how your body handles it all

Ah, stress – as much as you may try to avoid it, the reality is that it is a part of life. And for a good reason: stress plays an essential role in how your body responds to danger in your environment. Not all stress is bad and good stress is key to helping you survive. So, while you can’t avoid stress altogether, you can learn how to retrain your brain how to respond to stress in healthy ways.

Before you can do that, however, it’s helpful to learn how stress occurs in the first place. Here we’re going to focus on two parts of the brain that play important roles in how we experience stress: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is the part of the brain that is responsible for your emotions, and the prefrontal cortex controls decision-making, long-term thinking, and planning. 

Neuron cell close-up view.

What do these things have to do with stress? When it comes to stress, the brain tends to have a policy of “shoot first, ask questions later.” What that means is that when the brain sees an event as stressful, the emotion center (limbic system) is the first place the information gets sent and the first part of the brain to jump into action.


  • The amygdala, where you experience emotions, receives information about the event first and sends a message to the hypothalamus that something bad is happening. 
  • The hypothalamus controls basic body functions like body temperature and eating and sleep behavior. 
  • After receiving signals from the amygdala, it sends a message to the adrenal glands, which release a burst of energy (adrenaline) and stress hormones (cortisol) to prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze. 
  • While all this is happening, the amygdala tells the hippocampus, where memories are stored, to remember what made you so stressed, to begin with. This helps shape your future response to similar events.


The prefrontal cortex then kicks in to help you control your emotional response, making the stressful event less scary or frustrating. The limbic system develops earlier and faster than the prefrontal cortex and is particularly sensitive in young people. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to be fully developed, so when you’re young it has a harder time controlling emotional responses. If it feels like you are constantly being controlled by your emotions – it’s because you are!

This is a normal part of growing up and something we all go through when we’re young.

The brain’s stress response is useful when you’re in danger by helping your body quickly take action to keep you safe, such as encountering a bear in the wild. It’s not always so useful when it’s triggered when you’re not actually in danger, such as when you’re stressed about an upcoming test, football game, or a date with your crush. 

Bad news bears
Will you go to prom with me, Jacob?

By knowing the basics of the brain’s stress response, you’re better equipped to manage how you respond to it. Oftentimes, taking a deep breath and waiting to react to stress until after the intense initial emotional response has passed can help you feel less overwhelmed so you can respond in healthier ways!

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