Our lives are filled with stress, no doubt about it. When you’ve taken on a big slice of life you have things.to.do. and not.enough.time to do them. If ‘being stressed’ was an item on our to-do list, we’d go to bed every night feeling complete and accomplished.
Stress slows you down, from adding distraction to your day to dominating dinner conversation by venting. But when it grows beyond that to conditions like fatigue, digestive issues, migraines or sleeplessness it’s time to investigate. Those kinds of issues are a sign that your body isn’t getting a break from the chemical messengers of stress.
The stress response
It’s helpful to visualize how the stress response plays out in your body. We’re all familiar with the initial stages of stress – that body rush of heart pounding, hair-raising fear when you narrowly avoid injury, like a truck swerving into your lane of traffic. We humans also have the unenviable ability of imaging that we are narrowly avoiding injury – feeling the palpitations of stress when we’re just running late. The same response is triggered even though the threat of real injury is wildly different.
Fight, flight, or freeze
The chemicals that cause the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response are released when our brain is alerted to danger. Adrenaline (or epinephrine) is released through our nervous system and causes the body effects we associate with stress. This effect can be counted in minutes, and a good three or four minutes of deep breathing will clear them from your system. The hormonal back-up released from your adrenal glands, cortisol, stays in your system longer. Its job is to unlock your energy resources to get you ready to run or fight. It pulls energy out of your fat and muscle cells, and suppresses digestion, reproduction and some brain functioning (like memory).
For those of you who’d like a deeper dive into stress, Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford, has written a witty book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. He also has a luxurious beard that merits its own Facebook page.
Cortisol is fingered for causing long-term health difficulties when your body doesn’t have time to process the excess and bring levels back to normal. If the number of times you have that panicky stress feeling is more than you can count on one hand it’s unlikely that you are returning to normal levels each day.
The craftiest thing about high cortisol levels is that they make you feel like you have a commanding control of the details of your life. You are returning emails at 11 pm and wondering how all the other lazy sods can look at themselves in the mirror. What you don’t know is that those lazy sods may have damaged their adrenal’s ability to produce enough cortisol to face the challenges of the day.
Keeping cortisol at normal levels
There are two key approaches to keeping your cortisol from rising too high or to restore it to normal levels if it’s dropped too low.
- Remove chronic stressors. There’s not much we can do about what the world throws at us, but we can avoid some things that cause the body to produce cortisol. Main offender: skipping meals, low calorie diets, lack of sleep, over-exercise, food allergies and intolerances, alcohol, drugs and smoking, untreated infections and environmental toxins in food, packaging and body products.
- Engage your relaxation response. Your body has a matching relaxation response – called the ‘rest and digest’ response – that must be engaged to process excess cortisol. Bringing your focus to what you are doing can be a very powerful way to engage it. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery are other techniques that help.
Taking away a couple of habits that stimulate cortisol and adding in a couple that reduce cortisol can make a huge difference in how stressful your day seems.