If you've ever seen a video of a frantic mom lifting a car off of her child or felt your heart in your throat as you road a rollercoaster, you've seen or felt the effects of adrenaline. This humble hormone is responsible for superhuman feats of speed and strength, but too much of it can wreak havoc on your body. Here, you'll learn what causes an adrenaline spike, what an adrenaline rush feels like, and what happens when you have too much adrenaline. We'll also show you ways to lower your adrenaline levels naturally and with medication.
What is adrenaline?
Adrenaline is a hormone created in your adrenal glands. In response to a threatening or exciting situation, your brain sends a message to your adrenal glands (near your kidneys) and tells them to release adrenaline. The hormone rushes out into your blood, triggering changes in your heart, lungs, and brain that make you better able to respond to the threat.
- Adrenaline is a key component of your body's "fight or flight" response that gives you the power and energy you need to face down danger or escape from it.
Causes of an Adrenaline Spike
Fear. Since adrenaline's job is to help you survive, fear is the #1 thing that triggers a release of the hormone. As adrenaline courses through your veins, it primes your body to face down your fear—or get away from it.
- The same thing happens when you scare yourself without actually being in danger, like if you walk through a haunted house or watch a scary movie.
Excitement. You don't have to be frightened or in danger to get an adrenaline spike. The excitement of extreme sports and risky behavior can also trigger a surge of adrenaline.
- Riding a rollercoaster or a thrill ride at an amusement park is another good way to get a rush of adrenaline even though you aren't in any danger.
Anxiety. Anxiety is a lot like fear and any situation that makes you anxious also triggers a release of adrenaline. Sometimes, an idle worry can snowball into anxiety, prompting the same rush.
- If there are specific things or situations that terrify you, like speaking in public, you might experience anxiety and a surge of adrenaline just from thinking about that thing.
Stress. Mental or physical stress or exertion can trigger a release of adrenaline. Your nervous system does this to give you extra strength and power to get through the stressful situation. Once things have calmed down, adrenaline tapers off and stops.
- You might associate this with a sudden burst of strength and awareness while doing something athletic—something like being "in the zone."
- In terms of mental stress, this adrenaline spike is like the rush you get when you hear bad news or get reprimanded at work or school.
Signs of an Adrenaline Rush
Heightened awareness. Adrenaline causes your eyes to dilate so that everything around you appears sharper and clearer. You're able to concentrate on all the details and absorb them all at once. Your brain processes all of these details much more rapidly than it normally would, again thanks to adrenaline.
- If you've ever been in an emergency or other particularly terrifying situation and felt as though time slowed or stood still, that's thanks to adrenaline. Time seemed to slow down simply because your brain was moving much faster, and processing far more information, than it usually would.
Increased blood pressure. Adrenaline causes your blood vessels to contract and pump more blood to your heart, lungs, and major muscle groups. As a result, the blood must pass through a smaller space, so your blood pressure goes up to get it there.
- This is the part of your body's fight-or-flight response that diverts more of your blood to the parts of your body that are necessary for fighting or fleeing.
- Adrenaline also raises your blood sugar to give your body more energy.
Rapid heart rate and shallow breathing. Adrenaline increases your blood pressure to send more blood to your heart and muscles. It also helps your lungs breathe more efficiently so you don't have to breathe deeply to get the oxygen your body needs.
- You're likely to feel your heart pounding in your chest—you might even hear it pounding in your ears.
Powerful strength and energy. This is where you get the unbelievable and awe-inspiring super-human feats. You can't keep it up for long—a full-blown adrenaline rush only lasts for an hour or so, tops—but your body is capable of some truly amazing things when your life is in danger.
- A short surge of adrenaline when you're not actually in a life-or-death situation can feel pretty good to some people—so good, in fact, that they chase after that feeling by doing increasingly scary and dangerous things. You might've heard them called "adrenaline junkies."
Decreased sensitivity to pain. When you have adrenaline surging through your blood, it can feel as though nothing can hurt you. Adrenaline dampens the pain response in your nervous system so that you won't get slowed down by injuries as you fight or escape a threat.
- Sometimes you get hurt during an adrenaline rush and don't even realize it until after things have calmed down and the rush has subsided.
Trembling or shaking. If you don't have to lift a car off of a crushed baby or run away from a bear, where does all that energy and power go? Not really anywhere, it turns out. You'll feel really anxious and on edge. You might be twitchy or easily startled. The feeling will eventually dissipate, although it might take as long as an hour for it to go away on its own.
- If you've ever gotten stage fright, you know how this feels. The feverish face, trembling, clammy hands, sweating through your T-shirt—all thanks to a surge of adrenaline you didn't really need.
Symptoms of Excess Adrenaline
Jitters and irritability. If your hands are always shaking and you find yourself snapping at everyone, it could be a sign that you're dealing with excess adrenaline. This is especially likely if you feel like that and haven't had any caffeine or sugar.
- If you're not sure about this symptom, try laying off caffeine and sugar for a day or two and see how you feel. If your jitters subside, maybe you just need to cut back on the caffeine (which can also trigger your body to produce adrenaline).
Trouble falling or staying asleep. When you're facing danger, the last thing you want to do is fall asleep, right? When adrenaline is coursing through your bloodstream, it's going to keep you awake at all costs.
- As with the jitters, try to eliminate other reasons you might have trouble sleeping, such as too much caffeine or sugar. Insomnia is also a side effect of some medications.
Frequent headaches. Tension headaches are a pretty common side-effect of adrenaline overload. These headaches usually respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers, but that doesn't mean they don't disrupt your day.
- Adrenaline also dilates your pupils to let in more light, which can give you headaches—especially if you're in a pretty bright place when it happens.
Difficulties with concentration and memory. Adrenaline asks a lot of your brain, but it usually only requires that inhuman level of attention and focus for less than an hour. Excess adrenaline exhausts your brain, making it hard for you to pay attention even at normal levels.
Your muscles constantly feel tense or sore. Adrenaline gets your muscles ready for action—a problem if there's not any action. You might describe this feeling as "wound up." The soreness comes from the fact that your muscles are naturally going to get sore if they're held in a state of tension for an extended period of time.
Unexplained weight loss. Excess adrenaline keeps your body in a state of constant alertness, which means it's burning more calories than it normally would. This often means you're going to lose weight, even if you weren't trying to.
- A similar thing is happening if you're maintaining more or less the same weight but you're eating a lot more than you normally do.
Lowering Adrenaline Levels with Lifestyle Changes
Exercise for 20-30 minutes every day. Being physically active improves your mental and physical response to stress. If you're new to exercise, break this time up into smaller periods so you can handle it better.
- You could also try practices such as yoga or tai chi, which have elements of both exercise and meditation. Over the long term, these practices can really help lower your adrenaline levels.
Eat nutritious foods and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar can mimic or increase anxiety symptoms. Swap out high-fat, high-sugar, and processed foods with whole, healthy foods to stabilize your blood sugar levels and reduce feelings of anxiety. Plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats are key to making sure your body is getting the nutrition it needs.
- For example, instead of fried chicken nuggets, you could eat oven-roasted or grilled chicken. A fresh salad is more nutritious than French fries as a side.
- Here's the hard part: foods that are high in fats and sugar counteract stress and make you feel better in the moment—we don't call them "comfort" foods for nothing! It takes a lot of discipline and awareness to change your eating habits, but you'll be glad you did.
Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation. Your therapist can get you started with some deep-breathing techniques that you can use when you feel anxiety creeping in. Yoga and tai chi are great for your tense muscles because they encourage mental and physical relaxation.
- You don't have to spend a fortune to get good training either. There are plenty of good yoga videos available for free on YouTube.
Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night. If you're trying to manage your stress response, getting enough sleep is essential. Good sleep gives your body the chance to recover after a day of alertness so that you awake refreshed.
- This can be frustrating, especially if your higher adrenaline levels are causing you to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. In the short term, your doctor might prescribe you a sleep aid to help you develop a more regular sleep pattern.
Build a healthy support system with friends and family. Your friends and family can help you handle stress better and develop a healthy, active lifestyle. You have a much greater chance of succeeding if they're behind you every step of the way and encourage you to keep going.
- For example, if you're starting a new exercise program, you might get your partner or one of your friends to work out with you. They don't have to come every day, but even once or twice a week will make exercising more fun and keep you more accountable.
- Just spending time with your friends watching a movie or playing a board game can greatly improve your quality of life and make it easier for you to deal with stress whenever it rears its ugly head.
Work with a therapist to help manage stress. Talk therapy focusing on your specific anxieties can help you better manage your symptoms. Based on your initial talk therapy, your therapist might recommend other types of therapy to help ease your symptoms, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This type of therapy teaches you new ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that normally make you anxious. You might also learn and practice new social skills.
- Exposure therapy: Works particularly well with anxiety caused by a specific object or situation, such as fear of heights. You practice relaxation techniques while being exposed to the thing you're afraid of for increasing periods of time.
Talk to your doctor about medical treatment. Describe your symptoms to your doctor, along with what drugs or supplements you're taking. They'll likely also ask you questions about your lifestyle, activities, and diet. They need all this information to figure out if your symptoms are caused by high levels of adrenaline or by something else.
- In most situations, you treat excess adrenaline by finding out what caused it and then treating that. There isn't a specific drug you can take to directly lower adrenaline levels.
- Some physical health conditions, including thyroid problems and heart arrhythmias, can cause excess adrenaline and other symptoms consistent with an anxiety disorder.
Can adrenaline affect my mental health?
Excess stress can give you too much adrenaline. Your brain interprets any kind of stress as a fight-or-flight situation, which triggers a release of adrenaline. If you don't actually have to fight or flee, that adrenaline can make you antsy and tense.
- Anything that makes you anxious also triggers a release of adrenaline. With anxiety conditions, you'll get a burst of adrenaline anytime you're in a place or situation that makes you anxious.
Panic conditions or phobias can trigger a release of adrenaline. Remember that it's your brain that sends the initial message to your adrenal glands to flood your system with adrenaline. If you have a panic condition or phobia, your brain sends these signals at times when your survival isn't literally threatened. This adrenaline rush is what causes a panic attack.
- For example, suppose you have coulrophobia—the fear of clowns. Whenever you see a clown, your brain sends that message to your adrenal glands and you get a rush of adrenaline. Since you're not actually in any danger, that adrenaline rush triggers a panic attack.
- A phobia is an intense fear of a particular thing or situation. But your brain could also be triggered by something vaguer—a smell, a sound, or a general feeling.
- With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a reminder of a past traumatic event triggers a release of adrenaline. That reminder could be anything associated with the event.
Are disorders that cause excess adrenaline common?
Yes, anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders. Anxiety triggers the release of adrenaline—and an anxiety disorder means entirely too much adrenaline in your system. Up to 30% of adults will experience some sort of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Fortunately, treatment is relatively simple and straightforward.
- Panic disorders, phobias, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorders, and generalized anxiety disorders all fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders.
- Often, these disorders can be treated solely with talk therapy. In the short term, your doctor might prescribe medication for you to take at the onset of a panic attack or anxious response.
- If your anxiety continues for longer than a year, your doctor might recommend antidepressants to control the problem.
What medications affect adrenaline levels?
Benzodiazepines provide short-term relief from anxiety disorders. Benzodiazepines ("benzos" for short), including alprazolam (Xanax) and clonazepam (Klonopin), are central nervous system depressants with sedative properties. They can help you relax and ease the symptoms of anxiety.
- Some people use beta-blockers (propranolol), which slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, to treat anxiety symptoms. Beta-blockers are usually used to treat high blood pressure. They can relieve some symptoms of anxiety in the short term.
Antidepressants can help manage symptoms of panic and anxiety.Antidepressants are usually prescribed in combination with some form of therapy. These drugs can reduce the severity of your panic response and eventually eliminate panic attacks altogether. They usually take several weeks to start working and it might be several months before you're free from panic attacks.
- SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as fluoxetine (Prozac), are usually the first choice to treat panic attacks and anxiety disorders because they're generally safe and don't have any serious side effects..
- SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) target both serotonin and norepinephrine receptors. One drug, venlafaxine (Effexor XR), was approved by the US FDA to treat panic disorders.
- MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) might also be prescribed. However, they're older drugs with a lot of side effects, so they won't be your doctor's first choice.