Updated: Jul 25, 2020


We all have experienced stress in one form or another. Whether you are trying to finish an essay 5 minutes before the deadline, have overslept on the day of that really important early meeting or tried on everything in your wardrobe and still got nothing to wear, stress can take over your entire being and leave you feeling flustered and helpless. But what actually happens to your insides when you have a stressed-out episode? Those cries of frustration and sudden waves of anger are mediated by alterations to specific hormones in your brain and body, and your genetics, environment and development determine how well you can cope with these fluctuations. Even though no-one enjoys being stressed out, there are important reasons why evolution has selected for this response. However, dysregulation of these internal pathways can result in an inhibiting prolonged state of stress and ill-health.

Why am I so stressed? The reasons for the stress response

‘I wish I didn’t get so stressed about things’: a common thought following a period of worry and tension. Sometimes you may feel like you have worked yourself up over nothing, or other times you wish you could be one of those easy-going people who lets straining situations pass them by. All traits we possess have been selected for over thousands of years, and stress is no exception.

The organ systems in your body are finely-tuned to be in a balanced state and when this state is threatened, energy from other ‘maintenance’ activities is redirected to prepare to fight off the disruption. Long-term processes such as growth, reproduction, digestion and immunity are put on hold, so your body can use existing energy from these systems to generate even more energy to evade the stress. Your body increases your heart rate and blood pressure, your breathing rate goes up and there is activation of your colon to absorb as much existing scran as possible to increase energy levels. This translates to you feeling more alert, having better cognition and more focused attention to combat that threat to your internal harmony.

Over your lifetime, there are periods when you are more vulnerable to stress. As an infant all the way through to late adolescence, your stress response is much more plastic so experiences faced in early life shape how you respond as an adult. You may reflect on your youth with a wistful haze as a period when life wasn’t so stressful and looking back on your teenage years, you may have blissfully forgotten how much of a moody tyrant you were. In the adolescent body, the stress response is heightened, leading to you absolutely losing it when you were asked what you wanted for breakfast. The chemicals responsible for your stress response are actually pretty similar in their levels in the teenage and adult body, but the amount of times they are released and the duration of this release which is increased in teenagers, meaning those meltdowns are inevitable (sorry parents).

Genetically, you can be more inclined to be stressed than others. This is because stress is controlled by proteins encoded by genes. If you have any variation in your genes which leads to higher expression of these proteins, you will be more sensitive to stress whereas if you have lower levels, you are much more likely to be laid back. Environment can alter your response to stress, especially at a young age; with toxic early stressors leading to increased sensitivity to stress later on in life. Also, if you associate a specific environment with being stressed (like the office at work), your response may be more heightened in this environment than say in a spa hotel lounging by the pool. The psychological aspect to stress is huge and trying to take your mind off it can sometimes be the best medicine.

Should I stay or should I go? The Chemicals important for Stress

It may come as no surprise to you that stress is regulated by hormones; the chemical messengers responsible for those out-of-the-blue mood swings and emotional breakdowns watching The Simpsons Movie (yes, I cried at that. Yes, I was 15 and hormonal. Yes, I would still probably cry at that because even though I am 26, I am an emotional wreck). There are two hormonal responses to an incoming stressor; one rapid and one slow. The rapid response is responsible for generating the feelings we associate with being stressed; increased heart rate, trouble breathing, sweating and many more unpleasantries. All of these bodily functions are under control of the sympathetic nervous system and they are activated by the hormone adrenaline. We have all heard of adrenaline and how it makes you jittery and full of energy. This hormone is evolutions answer to being in the final round of a game show when you have the option of taking the money or risking your prize for an even bigger jackpot. Adrenaline causes the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is important in physically getting your body out of a stressful situation; whether that be to stay and fight the stressor or to run to the hills and never return. This hormone is also called epinep

hrine and the levels of it in the blood alter the actions of the sympathetic nervous system; with high levels leaving your heart is pounding and blood pressure soaring. These actions all increase the amount of energy available for you to scrap or bomb it.

The main hormone in the slow response to stress is cortisol. This is a type of steroid (glucocorticoid) which acts to increase blood sugar, supress inflammation and enhance cognitive function like memory. This aspect of the stress response is important for your body to maintain its heighten state if needed, increase anti-inflammatory signalling and remember exactly what you did so if faced with the same stressor again, you can reuse that info. If you have ever been put in a situation which causes high stress, I bet you can remember almost every second of that experience. But if I asked you how your day was last Tuesday at work, hours of time blur into one as nothing of note happened (unless a tiger jumped through your window last Tuesday at work, in which case, the former situation applies). Cortisol also has the super important job of stopping you feeling stressed. As confusing as this may sound, cortisol acts on the brain region responsible for the stress response (keep reading for more on this) and turns it off. This is an extremely important job as otherwise, you would constantly be stressed. When something generated by a system is also responsible for switching it off, it is called a negative feedback loop.

My head’s up the wall: The Brain to Body Stress Pathway

Now we know about the hormones responsible for the symptoms of stress, it is important we understand how they come to be swimming around in our blood. If you come face-to-face with a lion, how does your body know to be stressed? You may love lions and think they are really cute on a David Attenborough docu but if one was growling in your face in real life, it is quite important you can spring into action and get outta there. Your senses, such as sight and sound, as well as memories and associations infiltrate your brain and if the brain deems this combination of signals to scream ‘stress’, an area of the brain called the hypothalamus is activated. The hypothalamus is a small but very well-connected region at the base of the brain and contains neurons which release many different hormones. The main hormone released by the hypothalamus which turns on your stress response is corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), and this ‘on’ switch is boosted by another hormone called arginine vasopressin (AVP). Basically, CRH acts like turning on a dimmer switch light in a dark room, letting you clearly see your surroundings. When AVP is released, this is like turning that dimmer switch up to full brightness; letting you see every detail that room has to offer. This signalling system gives variation to the stress response. It would be pretty bad if a small stress like your shoe lace coming undone in a busy station lead to a full-blown meltdown so varying the levels of both hormones gives a spectrum of responses. The way these two hormones work together is called synergy.

These two hormones are part of a system called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA); a fairly complex arrangement linking the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. The pituitary gland is a very small organ also found at the base of the brain responsible for hormone production and is termed the ‘master gland’ as it can activate all the other glands in the body. Of these glands exists the adrenal glands; based far away from the brain, just above the kidney. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones vital for human survival and this is where your good friend’s adrenaline and cortisol are produced and released into the blood stream. On your average day, the pituitary gland signals to the adrenal glands to release these and other hormones in a rhythmic cycle so our bodies can function correctly but are not in complete hormonal overload 24/8.

When you are faced with a stressful situation, the brain alerts the hypothalamus to ramp up the release CRH and AVP. This in turn leads to an enlarged stimulation of the pituitary gland, with an increased release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The action of this hormone is given away by its name; it acts to stimulate the adrenal glands and lets it pump out adrenaline and cortisol to initiate the physical alterations needed to combat stress. As mentioned before, cortisol acts directly on the hypothalamus to switch off the release of CRH and AVP and therefore, shuts down the entire stress response. If this response is not stopped, serious health conditions such as depression, sustained anxiety, infertility, reduced growth, heart problems and issues with immunity can kick in. The severity of these illness shows us how important proper regulation of stress is and why it is important to destress. This can be done through mediation, taking a break (fellow students!), exercise and practicing a hobby. This can help literally take your mind off the stress and reduce hypothalamic signalling – the mind is a bloody powerful thing.

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When you are next feeling stressed, try to think about how the system works. Yes, your heart may be pounding and your appetite is out the window but thankfully, this response is made to be switched off. If you are experiencing chronic stress, talk to your GP and put yourself first as it really can cause damage. My advice is to get yourself to that beach in Bali, drink cocktails and chill. Your body needs it.


Updated: Jul 25, 2020


Those post-holiday blues are the worst. After building yourself up for months for the holiday of a lifetime, it flashes by in the blink of an eye and before you know it, you are back at your desk planning work for the week ahead. But from your fabulous adventure, you have gained lifelong memories, amazing photos and a glorious tan… or not.

Being a redhead, I know the pain of coming back from a holiday with very little to show for it physically. I have just come back from a two-and-a-half-week vacation and after one full day back in work, I have been asked ‘Where is your tan?’ about 10 times. The thing is, I have tried and tested every bloggers technique on ‘how to get a perfect tan’ but all of those tips resulted in a very red, very sore Jules. And trust me, having your skin matching your hair colour is naht a good look. The deep-routed envy I feel watching those blessed sun-kissed individuals lounging on the beach all day from under my parasol smothered in factor 100; knowing my attempts would lead to a tragic burn-peel-pale cycle. Whilst coating myself if aloe-vera following another failed tanning session, I used to always think ‘How did this happen? I was doing everything the same as those other people. What makes my skin not deepen and bronze like everyone else?’

Well I am happy to say that science answered my questions.

The majority of people with red hair have a mutation in a specific gene which causes this rare trait. These mutations are found in a gene called melanocortin receptor 1 (MCR1) and in redheads, two mutant copies of this gene (1 from mum and 1 from dad) are usually present in their DNA. As a result, redheads produce a faulty MCR1 protein. So how does this lead to pale skin and freckles?

Melanin is a protein responsible for skin colour, hair colour and producing a suntan. Levels of this protein increase in the cells (keratinocytes) in the top layer of the skin (the epidermis) when you expose yourself to the sun’s ultra violet (UV)-containing rays. Too much UV exposure can be harmful as this radiation can produce mutations in your DNA sequence. Suntan lotion protects your skin by both reflecting and absorbing the sun’s rays to prevent the majority of UV reaching your DNA. Those rays that do pass through stimulate the production of melanin, a UV absorbing protein, in special cells called melanocytes. Therefore, sun cream and melanin both act to prevent damaging UV radiation from mutating your DNA in cells within deeper layers of the skin.

There are two types of melanin: eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is the brown-black melanin associated with dark features and getting a deep tan, and its dark pigment enables it to effectively absorb UV. On the other hand, pheomelanin is red-yellow in colour and is responsible for pink skin tones. Pheomelanin's light colour means it is not as good as protecting your cells from UV radiation. When melanocyte cells are produced, they can either contain eumelanin, pheomelanin or a mixture of the two pigments. The respective levels of these pigments and the distribution of melanocytes is what gives a person their skin colour, with dark haired and skinned people having high levels of eumelanin and redheads having high levels of pheomelanin. When an individual has little to no melanin, they have very pale skin and white hair; a condition known as albinism.

The ‘ginger gene’, MC1R, plays a very important role in melanin production. The MC1R protein is a receptor which sits on the surface of melanocytes and its normal activity is one of the components which determines the amount of eumelanin and pheomelanin you possess. When UV rays enter the skin, they enhance the activation of the MC1R receptor. This receptor then signals for melanocytes to produce new eumelanin and convert any pheomelanin into eumelanin in order to produce as much protective melanin as possible. Gingers with genetic mutations in both copies of the MC1R gene generate a receptor which does not work correctly, therefore it cannot respond properly to incoming UV signals. This means the high levels of pheomelanin redheads naturally possess cannot be converted in eumelanin; leaving skin with a pink hue. When keratinocytes containing melanin cluster together they produce freckles, and this is more likely to occur in people with fair complexions and high levels of pheomelanin.

To sum all that science up, red heads have a faulty MC1R receptor which doesn’t switch on in response to the sun’s UV rays. This means the yellow-red pheomelanin in their melanocytes cannot be converted into the brown-black eumelanin which creates a sun tan. They also have pheomelanin in their hair cells, giving their locks a red colour compared to most people who have either little (blonde) or lots (brown/black) of eumelanin in their hair follicles. No matter what your hair or skin colour, you should always wear a good SPF when out in the sun to stop them pesky UV rays doing something they shouldn’t.

Once I learnt the science behind being a redhead, I stopped trying to get a tan. I know that my body does not have the right equipment to get a golden glow so now I just get mine from a bottle instead. I used to hate my skin and freckles when I was a teenager but now, I love being part of the 1% ginger club. Plus, our mutation means we are the best at absorbing vitamin D, so even when it is cloudy us redheads can take a bit of the sun rays and make use of them. Efficient little things, we are.

For all my future holidays, I will be following the 3 Fs: factor 50, fake tan and fabulous hats. And I am fine with that.

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If you want to know more about genetics and mutations, check out the basic biology section of my website. There you will find out a few of the basic facts about DNA and what a mutation actually is. If you want more in depth science on melanin and MC1R, check out this review. Now, go out and enjoy that sunshine, but make sure you get the SPF on first!


Updated: Jul 25, 2020


Staying Motivated After Achieving a Goal



Ahhhh… there is no greater feeling than completing a huge task which has been taking over your life and destroying your soul for a long time. The satisfaction, the sense of accomplishment and, best of all, the relief. These are the euphoric feelings you are imagining in caffeine-fuelled moments of procrastination; envisioning when the time will come for you to enjoy the green grass on the other side of slogging. But what happens after these initial feelings fade and you have to start on the next project? Demotivation and sluggishness replace the buzz and you find yourself in a bit of a slump. That delightful meadow you were dreaming about lying in feels just like any other patch of grass. This emotional pattern is common with both personal and professional goals and personally, it gets me every time.

My latest professional milestone was completing the first presentation of my PhD research, and the fact it was the ‘first’ piled on the pressure. This would be the first time I was introducing myself as an academic, introducing hours of background reading and introducing my own ideas. As well as these worries, I was also stressed about just getting through the 20 minutes without getting tongue-tied and saying ‘ermm’ or ‘like’ every other word. The voice in my head kept saying that if this presentation did not go well, every future talk of mine would be accompanied by a bag of nerves and an uncomfortable audience.

But thankfully... it went well. I got through it relatively unscathed with only a few nonsensical words escaping my mouth. All the stressing, the long hours making sure every text box was lined up and slide colour schemes maintained were blissfully behind me. And I was really relieved, as I always am in the hours following an accomplishment. A few nice conversations and pats-on-the-back made me relax and I thought I could finally take my foot off the gas and get my life back on track. I had dreamt of doing boring organisation and planning new experiments for weeks, and finally, this work could get under way.

And then I crashed.

The afternoon following my talk, I was raring to go. I sat back at my desk ready to get cracking on the huge to do list which I had accumulated during my presentation prep. But 10 minutes in, my eyes were closing. Physically, I could not keep them open. I convinced myself that I was exhausted from a 5am start, so closed my notebook and treated myself to an early finish.

I arrived into work the next day full of motivation, ready to be super organised and work harder than I have ever worked before. This feeling all but lasted until I sat at my desk and realised I had to actually start using my brain. Even my self-prescribed remedy (a walk to Starbucks to buy an iced oat latte) could not kickstart my productivity. Demotivation was really creeping in. I didn’t want to go into the lab, I didn’t want to plan ahead, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And these feelings continued throughout the week; ending each slow day promising that my work would really take-off tomorrow.

When I have my attention on a huge task for an extended period of time, anything outside that task feels like a luxury I am being deprived of. I long to clean the dishes, put my washing away and organise my lab book. But once the big task is completed, I feel at a loss. The rhythm I had found myself meticulously working in is left without a metronome and I have to build a new routine from scratch. The heaps of energy I imagined I would have is instead a constant tiredness with everything taking even more effort than usual.

This crashing has happened throughout my life. With exam periods at school, I would dream of the amazing days I would have away from revision. But once these days came, I realised the lack of structure made me restless. When working hard at the gym before a holiday, trying to exercise again once the plane has landed back home is unthinkable. And now, when an important work task has been completed, getting back into a productive routine is like pulling teeth.

So, I am writing a few points to myself to remind myself and maybe help others that although demotivated or in a slump, you are capable of bringing that productivity back.

1. Remind yourself of the long-term goal

Why did you start doing what you’re doing? What is the bigger picture? When I think I have over two years until my completion date, I can be quite overwhelmed. Not because 2 years is a long time, but the opposite. In science, time moves fast. 2 years is not long to get through all the experiments I proposed at the start of this year, so the sooner I get back into the lab, the closer I am to smashing out them results.

2. Start with small achievable tasks

It is easy to accrue a huge ‘to do’ list whilst working towards a big project. Your mind is so focused on the task at hand that other things get scrawled on post it notes and stuck with 20 something others. Coming to sort through this pile of incoherent instructions can be daunting. The best thing to do is start small. What tasks can you complete quickly with relatively little effort? Ticking these off the list will give you a sense of satisfaction and your motivation will start to pick up. Before you know it, you will be completely those huge tasks and realise the thought of doing them was much worse than the actions themselves.

3. Look at all aspects of your life

Whilst working towards a deadline, it is easy to let other aspects of your life slip. Once you have reached your goal, look at how you have spent your time over the past few days, weeks or months. Did you sacrifice spending time with your friends to work on your project? Did you give up your free time? Has your exercise routine gone down the pan? Well, now is the time to correct that balance. Make plans to go somewhere fun in the days following your deadline, get your endorphins pumping in the gym or just go and sit in the park with the book you have wanted to read for months. Take back some of those hard-earnt hours and let both your mind and body reset with no guilt.

4. Reflect back on your achievement and work ethic

You done a thing. WELL DONE! Say this to yourself. Look back on those hours sank into getting you through a really challenging task. If you feel a bit demotivated, remind yourself of how capable you are at being able to work your socks off when it is needed. That cannot be taken away from you, even if your brain is not allowing you to work to that capacity currently. You will be able to smash more goals because you just have done. And that is something to be celebrated.

5. Breathe.

It can be frustrating going from crossing the finish line in record time to find you are at the start line of an unknown track. But just breathe. Even if you aren’t 100% of your exact next steps, just know you can take them at your own pace. New opportunities will present themselves in this next run, just like they did in the last. And you will end up in a completely new place. Having this acceptance of not being in complete control gives you a sense of freedom and you can enjoy the next steps.

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Writing that post felt like a therapy session and was a good way of telling myself the thoughts I need to practice to get out of a slump. The main take home message is that if you don’t feel like you’re on top of the world once you have achieved a goal, that is okay and normal. You are more than likely exhausted and adrenaline-depleted. Also, as humans, we are never quite satisfied, even when we should be. We will always look towards the next mission to complete or trophy to earn. Admit to yourself you may need to take a bit of time out or slow down the work pace, and this will give you the control to bring your focus back for your next big goal.