Stress and Autism


Do you know anyone who has suffered from stress?  Have you ever felt stresses yourself?

When was the last time you were running late, got stuck in traffic, had and exam or interview, your day didn't quite go to plan...

If so you are not alone. Stress and stress-related dis-ease have been dubbed the disease of the 21st century, and the reasons for this are actually quite simple:

In simplistic terms the hard-wiring in our brains has not caught up with the speed at which the developed world is evolving.

The survival part of our brain is hard-wired for - survival – no feelings or emotion, just keeping us alive; survival of the fittest; the flight or fight response.  The fight or flight response is a programmed response to a stress stimulus, beginning in the brain when the Hypothalamus receives signals from one of its many sensory inputs of an alarming or emotionally charged event and releases corticotropin-releasing hormone. This stimulates the anterior lobe of the Pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone which in turn stimulates the Adrenal Glands to release cortisol into the bloodstream.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone, belonging to the glucocorticoid group. Its primary function is to redistribute energy – in the form of glucose – to the areas of the body that need it most   - the brain, the heart and lungs and major muscles during a flight or fight situation. At the same time the cortisol suppresses the body's functions that are not immediately required - the immune system, digestion and reproductive organs.


If I was a deer and realised I was being stalked by a mountain lion my brain would recognise the stress stimulus, the life preserving flight or fight response would kick in and I would run for my life. The result would be that I would either survive or I would be the mountain lion's dinner. If the flight response didn't kick in I would be the mountain lion's dinner and my genes would be thus removed from the gene pool.  If I survived I would recover my breath and then get back on with my daily business until the next stress stimulus arrived.

The high levels of cortisol released into my bloodstream during the situation would eventually circulate to my Pituitary Gland and Hypothalamus which would switch off the stress response cascade. My body had functioned the way it had been programmed to, I would have had a healthy stress response to a situation or stressor and I would have survived to live another day.

The supercharge of stress hormones and cortisol released by my adrenal glands to assist in my flight would be discharged, my heart-rate and breathing would return to normal and the systems in my body that had shut down - as every cell in my body did what it is programmed to do - totally focus on my survival – (what need is there for my digestive tract, reproduction, immune system to be functioning at such a time – or the sleep programme to kick in when I'm running for my life away from the mountain lion?)  would come back on-line and function again.

Stress today

Now in the 21st century our highly evolved western lives are packed chock-full of daily and multiple stresses. The stress of getting that parking place, of not missing that very important call, of catching the plane/train/bus, getting to school /work/appointment , etc, on time.  Stresses about passing the exam, giving a talk, getting the job, getting a mortgage / loan.   And even the daily stressors of getting up in the morning, writing a letter, talking to strangers, answering the phone, getting the ½ price deal, not understanding what is expected of you, a family conflict, and so on... all these are recognised in the survival part of our brain as:  STRESS.  Fortunately the brain has all this ancient knowledge, built on from centuries of avoiding mountain lions, so it knows what it needs to do to protect us when it senses stress...  Kick in with a flight or fight response!

But, despite the brain's helpful release of stress hormones (and the high levels of cortisol that they elicit) - we are not actually in a life or death situation. After we have parked the car, caught the flight, arrived at our appointment, answered the phone, etc, we do not find ourselves on the mountainside or in the glen recovering our breath having utilised the cortisol our body had placed at our disposal for such an emergency, and getting back on with the foraging busisness of the day.

So where does this cortisol go?

Well, it has nowhere to go, because the 'stress off' switch is not thrown, we are subjected to multiple and constant streams of stressors, and so the cortisol continues to flow through our body, redistributing energy to our organs of survival and suppressing sleep, digestion, immune system and reproduction and so on.   AND this cycle is repeated over and over during the course of each 24 hr period. Every time we are stressed.

What happens to our over-worked adrenal glands that have produced this life saving cortisol to help us run as fast as we can away from the mountain lion? When they are faced with the relentless bombardment of chronic stress and stressors our adrenal gland become, unsuprisingly, tired. This can manifest as a general lack of energy.  Meanwhile our system becomes overtaxed, and this can become harmful to our body and to our brain and memory.

When exposed to chronic stress our body  becomes vulnerable to immune system attacks – which in itself can be interpreted by the body as a stress in itself , thus perpetuating the cycle.
Chronic stress  can take a significant toll on your health and wellbeing and may contribute to health problems such as asthma, back pain, heart arrhythmias, palpitations, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, digestive disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, high blood pressure, infertility, obesity, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke, hasten your ageing process, lengthen your recovery time from illness and the healing of wounds and decrease your immune response.

Play is a great way to release stress

Play is a great way to reduce stress
Not only are we exposed to real stress - we humans are clever enough to create even more potential stress situations just by worrying about them and imagining them in our minds – so very well that our body goes into the life-saving flight or fight response and releasing adrenalin and shutting down all un-necessary systems – those not required to actually run away from the imminent danger of becoming the mountain lion's dinner right now.  The 21st century is one of great change and we cannot know if the NHS will be functioning as we know it in 20 yrs time, if there will be state pensions for us when we retire, if our savings will be wiped out overnight by bank / stock-market collapse, what the price of petrol will be at the pump in the morning etc., in addition to worries of securing a job, paying the bills, passing an exam, supporting your family.

How we react / respond to the stress stimulus is key as to how we potentially develop stress-related dis-eases. We are now living longer, generally in far better conditions than previous generations, and are, as a result, experiencing the dis-eases of slow accumulation of damage and chronic stress.

Rapid advances in western medicine and public health in the 20th century have changed our current patterns of dis-ease,  infections, childbirth and injuries that were previously all too frequently fatal are now the exceptional rather than the normal.

There is also a scientific recognition of how different people  process and react to the same stimulus – be that stress, or an illness / injury / event – that 2 people could be subjected to the same stimulus and react very differently and with that comes an awareness of the physical effect of our emotional response to stress  in combination with the biology of our bodies.