How to measure adrenaline arousal through your fingertips
We’re paying a lot of lip service to stress these days. Maybe because we’re likely living through one of the more stressful periods in history, everyone from clinical psychologists to news organizations to my mom has something to say about it.
Despite the staggering numbers, many people don’t connect stress as one of the main underlying causes of the problem. Why? Because stress is evasive and shifty. It comes and goes.
Those who are the most stressed, tend to be the ones least likely to realize it. The problem arises when we’re overly stressed for too long. That’s when issues like high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, tension headaches, migraines, anxiety, and depression set in.
What if we could take hold of our stress before it drives us to the physician’s office?
According to Dr. Archibald D. Hart in The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, if we were able to cheaply monitor our stress levels we’d benefit by:
- Better understanding our body’s response to stress.
- Being alert to particularly stressful events in our lives.
- Increasing awareness of our freedom to choose to opt-in or out of the stressor.
- Establishing a baseline from which we can tell whether we are becoming more stressed than before.
- Telling whether we’re beginning to master our stress.
There’s one simple technique you can use to monitor your adrenaline arousal, and the answer is right at your fingertips.
When the body is stressed (regardless of a real or perceived threat), it sends nerve and hormone signals to blood vessels in the hand. Those blood vessels then constrict, reducing the amount of blood in the fingers.
Dr. Hart explains with less blood flow, the fingers become cold. Typically our blood temperature runs around 98.6 degrees and the air in a given room is around 72 degrees. When we’re relaxed, our skin temperature can go almost as high as our blood temperature — around 94 degrees or higher.
During a stress response, the fingers can go as cold as the ambient room temperature. So if you’re nice and relaxed — hands are warm. If your adrenaline is pumping — cold.
Our brains are remarkable adaptors, and often the changes in temperature go unnoticed. After all, if you’re running for your life, the last thing your brain wants to think about is warming your extremities.
Dr. Hart notes:
During stress some people only drop one or two degrees. Others can drop as much as 20 degrees and have hand temperatures as low as room temperature. By monitoring your skin temperature over time, you will develop an understanding of your own unique response.
The best news is if you’re curious, you can measure your hand temperature with a thermometer or use a temperature dot (designed to read skin temperature through a sticker placed between the thumb and forefinger).
With a thermometer, place the reader in the crease between the thumb and finger. It’s slightly more time-consuming than the temperature dot but can still give you a picture of the skin’s temperature.
Ideally, the temperature is between 90 and 94 degrees. I measured mine when I woke up, and the reading said 93.7. Although, if you are in an exceptionally cold or warm room, you can throw the reading off.
Last but not least, touch your face. Our faces don’t see the same blood restriction as fingers as toes, so if your hands are freezing and your face is normal, it’s a good sign you’re stressed.
Of course, cold hands can also be a symptom of certain conditions that restrict blood flow, like age, diabetes, migraines, and Raynaud’s Syndrome. However, if you have none of the above and find your hands consistently cold, you could have chronic stress.
Learning to Relax
According to Dr. Hart, Type-A individuals and people prone to anxiety tend to have larger temperature shifts than others. I fall into that category.
Today, while fighting with my daughter over her online school assignment, I noticed my hands get cold. I touched her face and made her shiver. Before I read Dr. Hart’s book, I thought my cold hands meant I was cold — not stressed.
Yet, it makes sense. The house temperature hadn’t changed. The only thing different was my daughter’s attitude, and my body clearly wasn’t reacting well.
Once you learn how to take your stress temperature, you can start to do something about it. You can actively make your hands warmer through relaxation techniques.
Dr. Hart advises taking the following steps:
- Lie on your back and breathe in and out slowly while feeling your belly rise and fall.
- Concentrate on your hands and picture yourself lying in the warm sun or imagine your hands under warm water.
- Imagine the blood vessels in your hand becoming larger as blood flows through them.
- Say to yourself, “my hands are getting warmer.”
- Remain this way for 10–20 minutes.
- You can try the same exercise sitting up, especially if you are at a desk or in traffic.
I tried this once I got past the initial schooling crisis and was surprised at how well it worked. To be honest, I never thought I could warm my hands with my mind. I’m sure it’s because I took the time to breathe and relax, but it made the rest of the school day go much better.
We can choose to ignore high-stress levels, as many people get by for decades without any ill-effects. However, once your body decides it’s had enough, you’ll likely end up in the physician’s office looking for something to help you feel better.
Why not try to monitor your adrenaline arousal (stress response) before it gets to that point? Next time your hands are cold, take a look at what’s going on around you? Can you use biofeedback as a way to stop stress in its tracks?
From someone whose hands are constantly cold, I’m anxious to keep giving it a try.