In our article on cortisol and the stress response, we explored how our body reacts to the release of what is popularly referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. This reaction to stress can be either positive or negative, depending on how much stress it is, the duration of stress and other factors that vary from person to person.

Let’s delve a little deeper in this piece into why stress can affect different people in such starkly different ways.

How can people experience different levels of physiologic benefit/harm at the same level of cortisol?

Imagine you’re driving to work when you notice you’ve got a flat tyre. You get out to take a look at the damage, and realise that there’s no way you’re still going to be able to make it to your first meeting in time. Do you calmly go about firefighting the situation, or do you get all stressed out and lose your temper at how the day has started off?

Two people can very well release different levels of cortisol when faced with an external scenario like the one mentioned above. But even at the same level of cortisol, people might experience different levels of physiologic benefit or harm – and this is due to the sensitivity of their cortisol receptors(1)

How do cortisol receptors influence the extent of stress a person experiences?

“Individual differences in levels of receptors, what version you have, how well that works, how avidly it holds onto the hormone, what it is then coupled with afterward downstream inside the cell, that whole world turns out to be as central to understanding individual differences as the part of the levels of hormones themselves,” Prof. Robert Sapolsky says(2).

Read all about the biology of the cortisol(3) or glucocorticoid receptor here, to understand all the minute details of what goes on in our physiology as a response to stress. 

Sensitivity to cortisol is actually a lot like insulin sensitivity (Link 2), if you think about it. Two people can have a different insulin response to the exact meal; similarly, two people can also have the same level of insulin, but can have vastly different physiologic responses because of their varied insulin sensitivity.  

How does stress during PMS affect a woman differently than on other days?

If you’ve ever had a period, you’d know that the week or so preceding it can be quite debilitating due to PMS or premenstrual syndrome. Many women experience fatigue, bloating, moodiness and irritability before they start menstruating – ladies, you know exactly what we’re talking about. 

Biologically speaking, a woman is in her luteal stage at the time, and her progesterone levels rise for the placenta for a possible pregnancy. If it’s a ‘false alarm’, her uterine lining is shed and her progesterone levels drop drastically – this is essentially what causes the symptoms of PMS. 

Women have varying levels of sensitivity to this crash, though, and that’s why every woman you know probably experiences PMS in a completely different way. Interestingly, research has shown that in baboons, as well as humans, culture largely influences the severity of a woman’s PMS symptoms. So the next time your friend, partner or sister are complaining about feeling lousy before their period – lend them a listening ear!

Simply put-

Just like every individual is unique, so are their responses to stress, dictated by a range of factors, ranging from genes, prenatal environment to psychological factors(4). We’ve also touched upon how stress can be epigenetically imprinted in children while still in the womb, and the effects of how personality and subjective socio-economic status affect the stress response in a previous piece.  

If you want to dig deeper, go ahead and read more about the psychological, behavioural and biological factors that determine the relationship between stress and health here

So the next time you are experiencing signs of stress, keep in mind that it could be any of these factors at play. That’s no excuse for constant tantrums, though! Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, regular physical exercise and better food habits are great stress management tools, whatever the magnitude of your reaction to it may be.