Why We Achieve Superhuman Abilities Under Extreme Stress

How cortisol aids us in fight or flight situations


Lisa Bradburn

3 years ago | 3 min read

How cortisol aids us in fight or flight situations

The following is not a humble brag story. It is about an ordinary person performing an extraordinary act under a set of stressful circumstances. Through this example, we will learn why perceived threats alter the hormones in our bodies, allowing fearlessness.

In early March, I crossed the downtown Toronto intersection of Simcoe and Wellington Streets. It was lunchtime and semi-busy. Strolling towards me was a respectable young man, early thirties dressed in business casual attire. The advanced green light was ours. From out of nowhere, a white moving van made a sharp right-hand turn and smacked into the man. The sound of the truck impacting the guy’s body reverberated through me, followed by his howl of pain. In complete shell shock, the man remained half standing in the middle of the intersection. I bolted over to him and verified there were no fatal injuries. The van driver, however, started to accelerate away. It was then, a powerful animalistic force washed over me, and I leaped in front of the vehicle. My index finger pointed at the driver, and I hollered at him:

“Stop! You are NOT going anywhere!”

I whipped out my cell phone and snapped a picture of the license plate. The driver pulled over, perhaps terrified of what I’d do next. When I looked back to the middle of the road, the wounded limping man remained zombified. A giant tour bus began to make a left-hand turn and was in line to hit the young man. Again, I bounded in front of the bus and splayed my hands out like a woman on a mission. The bus halted. I tucked the man’s arm under mine and gingerly walked him to the street curb, where he sat down to rub his right leg. There was no blood or external surface wound. Other people rushed over to the young man’s aid, and I called 911. All of this felt like a short blip in time, a dream-like state. Not once did I pause to think rational thoughts during the process. Instead, I acted.

Who was this person?
Why did I feel compelled to protect a stranger with my life? Upon reflecting, it felt like a strange drug invaded my body. Or I was high.

And that’s because I was — sort of. Cortisol, a steroid hormone, surged through my system and enhanced my behavior to become a lion on speed. It was after the incident; I had time to slow down and feel the experience of an accelerated heartbeat, sweaty palms, and the sense of not being able to receive enough oxygen. The natural ‘high’ continued for another hour and eventually tapered off, leaving me exhausted and ready for bed.

The Mayo Clinic explains where the high feeling comes from:

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

In witnessing the young man’s accident, my body perceived stress and caused my adrenal glands to make and release the hormone cortisol into my bloodstream.

What is Cortisol? describes cortisol as:

one of the steroid hormones and is made in the adrenal glands. Most cells within the body have cortisol receptors. Secretion of the hormone is controlled by the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, a combination glands often referred to as the HPA axis.

The short term benefits of steroids are improvements in strength and performance. Cortisol provided me with the necessary energy to take extraordinary action.

If you’re a visual person, the following embedded link: 2-Minute YouTube Neuroscience video provides an overview of how cortisol is created and distributed within the body.

Let’s return to the scene of the injured young man. When the paramedics and police arrived, the driver was charged. Later that evening, a Police Officer called me, and I provided him with a full description of events. It turns out the driver is disputing our advanced green light, and in the future, I will go to court to defend the injured man — and discover his name.

Original Post


Created by

Lisa Bradburn

Sr Scrum Master Transitioning To Agile Coach | Heart-Centric Leader | Gestalt Psychotherapist-In-Training | Writer on Medium | Brand Ambassador for Mental Health Awareness | Editor, Being Well and Medika.Life







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