Your Body on. . . Adrenaline

That powerful surge of energy you feel when you’re scared or nervous just might save your life. 

You’re walking into school for possibly the first time in more than a year, and—how can we put this nicely?—you’re a total mess. Pounding heart, sweaty palms, shaky legs, and a major swarm of butterflies in your stomach. You might be tempted to turn around and run back home, but instead, take a deep breath.

That case of first-day jitters is caused by a surge of adrenaline, and, believe it or not, it’s there to protect you. Adrenaline is called the fight-or-flight hormone because it prepares your body to either do battle with, or run from, a threat—even if that threat is as minor as being late for first period. Here’s how it works:

1. Power Surges

An adrenaline rush can help you in a lot of ways, including:

SUPER STRENGTH: The adrenaline surge triggered by an emergency has given some people the strength to lift a car off of a person who was trapped underneath.

REVVED-UP MEMORY: In studies, people have remembered facts better after being injected with adrenaline.

TURBOCHARGED FOCUS: Adrenaline causes neurons in your brain to fire two to three times faster, giving you the ability to focus intensely and react quickly.

BRAIN

When something makes you anxious or afraid, a part of the brain called the hypothalamus cues your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline so you’ll be able to fight or flee the threat.

EYES

Adrenaline supercharges your senses, including eyesight. Your pupils dilate, letting more light into your eyes so you can assess your surroundings in case you need to make a quick exit.

HEART

The surge of adrenaline signals your heart to pump blood faster. It also ramps up your breathing rate to boost the flow of oxygen to your muscles, all so you’re ready to spring into action.

STOMACH

Feel like you want to throw up? Adrenaline shuts down your digestive system to free up even more energy for your limbs. As a result, you might feel nauseated.

SKIN

That huge rush of energy-supplying blood to your limbs causes your body temperature to rise. To cool you down, your sweat glands get to work.

LIMBS

Your body starts breaking down glucose, aka sugar, to create extra fuel your arms and legs can use to run or punch. The result is that your limbs start feeling shaky or tingly from the excess energy.

2. Keep Calm and Carry On

If the danger you’re facing is only in your mind, try these tips to get an adrenaline rush under control. 

1. SMILE You might feel silly, but forcing yourself to bust out a huge grin (or even a belly laugh) will signal your brain to decrease your adrenaline levels while increasing your levels of feel-good hormones, aka endorphins.

2. BREATHE Inhale for four seconds, then slowly exhale for eight seconds. Taking deep breaths with long exhalations lowers your heart rate, signaling your body to calm down.

3. MOVE Still jittery? Take a quick lap around the school (or pop into a bathroom stall and shake out your arms and legs). Physical activity helps burn off the adrenaline and regulate the blood flow through your body.

3. A Lifesaving Shot

If you or someone you know has allergies, you’re probably familiar with EpiPens, which are used to inject a shot of lifesaving medicine during an allergy attack. But did you know that the active ingredient in the pen is adrenaline? The “Epi” in EpiPen stands for epinephrine, another name for adrenaline, and it helps your airways stay open during an allergic reaction.

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