An adrenaline rush is a sudden increased secretion of adrenaline from the adrenal glands. Adrenaline rushes can be healthy responses to actual threats to a person's well-being or symptoms of an underlying mental disorder.
You’ve probably experienced it yourself many times: the sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat of an adrenaline rush. It’s an integral part of the fight-or-flight response, which is activated when we perceive a threat to our safety or we’re in some kind of danger, explains Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City 1.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is one of the “stress hormones” produced by the adrenal gland. It works closely with another stress hormone, cortisol, to help us cope with everything from physical danger to an upcoming exam or deadline.
“The net effect of the [fight-or-flight] response is to send more blood to our muscles and dilate air passages, with the net effect of increasing your rate of breathing,” explains Dr. Glatter. “This allows [us] to run or flee a threat or danger with superhuman speed and strength.”
Adrenaline also helps you deal with adversity by channeling blood toward the heart and lungs, blunting your perception of pain, and enhancing your awareness of what’s going on around you, according to the Endocrine Society 26.
An adrenaline rush typically lasts 10 to 20 minutes before it starts to wear off, says Dr. Glatter. The aftereffects can include feeling shaky, having a headache or even feeling nauseous, he adds.
Any number of things can cause an adrenaline rush, and the reasons tend to differ from person to person, depending on that person’s individual response to a given situation, says Vijay Shivaswamy, MBBS, associate professor of internal medicine in the division of diabetes, endocrine and metabolism at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha 23.
Here are examples of situations that can spark an adrenaline rush:
Many if not most of us will experience an adrenaline rush in response to physical threats such as being held at gunpoint or seeing a car speeding straight toward us. The fear-induced hormone response kicks in within a couple of minutes of the realization that you’re in physical danger, per the Endocrine Society 26. Its purpose is to lend your body maximum ability to cope — and therefore improve your odds of surviving the threat.
An upcoming job interview — or deadline, or exam — is a classic cause of an adrenaline rush. Though the situation isn’t technically life-threatening, the hormone response again gives you an edge, making you hyperaware and ensuring that you’re on your toes and performing at your best.
Marital or relationship difficulties are another cause of adrenaline rushes, says Dr. Glatter. There’s even something called “broken heart syndrome” (aka takotsubo cardiomyopathy), a temporary condition that can cause heart-attack-like symptoms such as chest pain 4. Broken heart syndrome can be triggered by a deeply stressful event, such as getting fired, going through a divorce or the unexpected death of a loved one, according to the Mayo Clinic 47. It's not yet known what causes it biologically, but the condition is thought to be related to a surge of stress hormones, including adrenaline 2. The condition is treatable, and most people recover.
People with panic disorder often have problems in the parts of their brain that govern the fight-or-flight response, such as the adrenaline glands, per the University of Pennsylvania 5. For them, the release of stress hormones results in the telltale symptoms of a panic attack, such as:
- rapid heartbeat
- shortness of breath
According to the Society for Endocrinology, people who have untreated sleep apnea may experience surges of adrenaline at night 267. Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing actually stops repeatedly (but briefly) during the night, according to the Mayo Clinic 7. It’s often associated with obesity. Not surprisingly, fighting to breathe can precipitate a release of adrenaline. This, in turn, can cause a spike in blood pressure, according to experts at Stanford University 78.
A paraganglioma is a tumor that produces similar symptoms, but which sits outside the actual gland. Most — though not all — of these tumors are benign.
Adrenaline rushes can be both good and bad, points out Dr. Shivaswamy. They’re good when they help you deal with an emergency. They’re not so good when they’re repeatedly triggered by things that aren’t real emergencies.
“Continual and repeated adrenaline rushes are not healthy for our bodies,” confirms Dr. Glatter. “Emotional triggers such as repetitive stress and anxiety may lead to prolonged and continued release of these hormones, triggering a cascade of secondary effects on your body which can lead to high blood pressure, inflammation and damage to blood vessels. The release of adrenaline increases blood pressure and heart rate, which can also increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.” If these types of adrenaline rushes go on for too long, they can lead to hypertension and kidney damage, he adds.
- Robert Glatter, MD, emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
- Endocrine Society: “What is Adrenaline?”
- Vijay Shivaswamy, MBBS, associate professor of internal medicine, division of diabetes, endocrine & metabolism, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha
- Mayo Clinic: “Broken heart syndrome.”
- University of Pennsylvania: “Panic Disorder.”
- Society for Endocrinology: “Adrenaline.”
- Mayo Clinic: “Sleep apnea.”
- Stanford University: “Why untreated sleep apnea may cause more harm to your health than feeling fatigued.”