The HPA axis and the locus coeruleus systems are linked through the hypothalamus and an area of the brain known as the limbic system. The limbic system is the control area for emotion and the processing area for memory. These linkages are critical. For example, if you see the bushes rustling, your locus coeruleus immediately starts things (the stress response) rolling. However, when you see that it is not a mountain lion but a golden retriever in the bushes, your memory of the tameness of the dog will turn off the stress response. Similarly, if a person is nervous before a public-speaking engagement and the first minute or two goes well, this happy feeling will turn down the activity of the locus coeruleus. These internal adjustments are why experienced public speakers often start off with a joke. It's as much to calm themselves (if the joke goes well) as it is to entertain you.
The connections also include the endogenous (within the body) opiate (opium-like) system and the reward (dopamine) system. Thereby, during stress, pain is reduced and an extremely happy feeling (euphoria) may result. These connections partially account for "runner's high" and have a great deal to do with why we like roller coasters and scary movies.
Here's how the connections work. The limbic system performs an emotional analysis and memory review of the information provided by the senses. Then, the multiplicity of connections allows us to determine whether the current stress is
- one that has been mastered in the past and successfully adapted to
- not a threat at all
- a clear and present danger
All of this internal activity must occur in milliseconds, and it does.
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