You And Your Cortisol

What's the purpose of stress?

I used to ask clients this question while giving a lecture on stress and relaxation.  I was met with a variety of responses: to drive me crazy, to help me learn, I don't know - you tell me, etc. Sometimes people would tell anecdotal stories about how they worked well under pressure so maybe stress had something to do with motivation.  ...Now we're onto something. 

The real purpose of stress is to keep us alive.  

You've probably heard of the term "fight or flight," right? The body's experience of stress is chemical. Imagine that you're reading this blog from the comfort of your home then, all of a sudden, there's some kind of comotion - maybe a loud noise.  What happens inside of you in that moment?  It's likely that your heart starts racing, you stop focusing on reading, you start focusing on escape, you look for something to use as a weapon, and you start sweating.  During times of duress, your body releases hormones that prepare you to run away or take action and this is a fantastic innate gift... if survival is the goal.  

By now you may have already thought, That's cool, but I feel stress even when I'm not being chased by lions, tigers, and bears.  You're absolutely right.  You see, we all have a built-in mechanism called the HPA axis which is made up of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland.  A simple way to think of the HPA axis is this: feeling stressed = activated HPA axis, not feeling stressed = non-activated HPA axis. The most important thing to understand about the HPA axis is that when it is turned "on" it releases the hormone cortisol, which is commonly known as the stress hormone.  This HPA axis that we all have prepares our bodies to respond to any perceived stress.  Chemically, there is no difference between how the body responds to an actual threat or a perceived threat.  As a result, the body responds the same way to a car nearly hitting you and a to-do list that is a million miles long, even though only one could actually kill you. 

While there are a lot of factors that determine how each individual experiences and expresses stress, one thing we all have in common is the release of some amount of cortisol into the body.  How much and how long this stress hormone gets released determines how much damage you do to your body.  You see, this stress mechanism was developed to aid in our survival during moments of acute stress - those moments when we experience a true threat to our life.  But most of the stress you and I experience today is not life threatening.  We worry about job deadlines, our relationships, paying bills, and what others think of us, just to name a few.  Because these types of stressors result in chronic stress we end up with a steady and small amount of cortisol that is released into the body.  Instead of an intense flood of cortisol followed by a period of restoration, we allow a small, constant flow that is undetectable moment to moment, which is ultimately more insidious.  

For those of us who experience chronic stress for any extended period of time, there can be a litany of negative effects:

  • Muscle tension

  • Poor immune system

  • Difficulty concentrating on important tasks

  • Problems with memory

  • Loss of energy

  • Headaches

  • Acne

  • High blood pressure

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Weight fluctuation

The good news is that there are things we can do to repair and prevent the damage done to our bodies due to stress.  I want you to think of the first couple of things that come to mind when I ask "What do you do to relax?"  It's likely that you said watch TV, read a book, listen to music, exercise, yoga, take a nap, pray, or maybe talk to a friend, and all of these are fine ways to calm the mind and body and stop the flow of cortisol.  It is also important to know the difference between passive and proactive relaxation, especially if you experience chronic stress.  When we choose to take a nap or zone out in front of the television we're engaging in passive relaxation, meaning we're avoiding or tuning out the thing that was causing us stress.  While this isn't necessarily a bad decision, it likely won't prevent you from experiencing the stress again once you wake up from that nap or finish watching that movie, so it's important to begin integrating proactive measures to respond to stress.

I mentioned earlier that we feel stress as cortisol is released into the body, so in order to avoid feeling excessive stress, we need to find ways to get rid of the cortisol that has built up inside our body.  We do this through breathing.  By learning and practicing true belly breathing we can decrease the levels of cortisol and thus feel less stress.  This means that we will look and feel healthier, have more energy, experience fewer bodily pains, feel peace and relaxation, and improve memory and concentration.  Some of you may be thinking that you've tried deep breathing before and it didn't work.  If you didn't feel some sort of relief from belly breathing then it's likely you need better instructions and guidance on how to properly belly breathe.

There are so many resources available to help us understand our emotional health and promote wellbeing and wholeness.  As a naturally anxious person by nature, I feel passionate about helping people learn about stress and relaxation.  Click here to watch one of my favorite videos to learn the basics of belly breathing.  If you have any questions, feel free to email me at trisha.lpc.thespace@gmail.com. 

 

The Crepe Myrtles are Blooming.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by life's burdens.  Just the other day I was driving alone in my car and I realized, in that moment, how small I had made my world.  I had spent 20 minutes driving yet all I could think about were the things causing me stress.  I hadn't thought about the other people on the road with me, considered whether I was driving carefully, or even troubled myself to consider solutions to my worries.  The reality is, I was worrying about the same things that eat up most of our worried minds: the future, plans, finances, saying the wrong thing, so on and so forth.  I was allowing my past and my future to consume my present and could feel the discomfort spread: first my chest, then my stomach, and then my head. Then something special happened - I glanced to the left and saw a blooming crepe myrtle.  

I don't have a green thumb or know much about trees, but I remember living in an apartment complex about a decade ago that had sidewalks lined with crepe myrtle trees and they were beautiful, though not year round. From then on, I looked forward to seeing the first blooms because it happened so quickly and they filled the world with color - white, magenta, red.  I also associate it with the beginning of Spring, which for me is an easier season to love than Winter.  

But this isn't really about the beauty and wonder of crepe myrtle trees or Spring, but rather, having something to look forward to, especially during tough times.  Luckily, the things that you and I worry about most of the time are not things that are life threatening.  They bring us fear due to uncertainty and lack of control, and we can feel this fear in every ounce of our body, mind, and relationships.  The stress can't kill us, but it can feel paralyzing.   

I'm a bit anxious by nature, so I've collected a number of different coping mechanisms to help when I'm feeling overwhelmed or panicky.  But there are circumstances where I know my mind might be a bit more worried until the passing of an event, such as waiting on the results of something.  And in these conditions, I rely on another set of skills to keep me grounded and at peace.  I ensure that there are things in my day and life that I enjoy, such as taking five minutes to meditate with the crepe myrtle trees.  When I have a busy day scheduled, I treat myself to a breakfast and fancy coffee or plan a dinner I can look forward to throughout the day.  When I know a couple of weeks will be more stressful for me, I carve out extra time for my friends and plan ways to pamper myself during the week (hello epsom salt bath on a Wednesday).  I've learned to be gentle with myself.  

We need not feel all the worry all the time.  So find (or rediscover!) the things you enjoy and make time for them, especially when life asks a lot of you. Your body will thank you, your mind will thank you, and your people will thank you.