Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stress and Kayaking

Trying to break down my own panicked near-drowning experience from last night (not to worry, I'm going to continue kayaking) got me thinking about Adrenaline (also called Epinephrine) and Cortisol, (the other well-known stress hormone). Ideally, kayaking would bring about the longed-for adrenaline rush, which would focus mental activity, increase oxygen and glucose levels in the brain, and generally provide a more focused experience. Unfortunately, I think last night my body went with cortisol instead. Cortisol & Adrenaline are both stress hormones, although adrenaline seems to be the more useful response to stress in modern times. There is a theory that we developed the cortisol-fueled stress response to combat potassium loss during certain types of illnesses. Adrenaline was probably developed as a way to deal with the stress of being chased by lions on the open Savannah--it's often alluded to in discussions of the 'fight or flight' response.

The problem is, our lives are stressful today in much different ways than they were when these hormones developed as survival techniques. When your body floods with cortisol before that big presentation at work, it's not exactly working with you for your survival, you know? If cortisol's main function is to regulate potassium levels and the rest of the effects are just side effects, that makes it a pretty annoying little hormone. Blood pressure goes up, the immune system is suppressed. Over time, too much cortisol in your bloodstream can wreak havoc on your heart and increase your chances of heart attack and heart disease.

But back to kayaking. I expected it to be a little scary, but I also expected my body to cooperate with me--it didn't. I was flooded with cortisol and ended up shaky and exhausted (nothing a little post-kayaking beer can't fix). Nevertheless, I feel like trying it all over again, so it can't have been all that bad. Gordon and Drew say that there's a Zen aspect to kayaking: In order to keep from drowning, you have to be willing to take your time under water, calm down, and not breathe for awhile while someone comes to rescue you or you get your bearings. You have to train yourself to do the opposite of what you feel like doing. That's going to be a challenge for me I think. Bring it on. : )

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