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Negative Effects of Cortisol & How to Cope

Cortisol & Stress

Cortisol seems to be one of those buzzwords these days. People talk about trying to control their stress level in order to minimize the amount of cortisol in their bodies. But what exactly is cortisol? How does it work in the body and what are the effects? What can you do to minimize high levels of cortisol?

I don't know about you, but I am constantly rattling off my to-do list in my head or stressing that I'll never have enough time to complete it. I have a perfectionist mentality and often think, “What if I fail?” I always feel that I need a plan for the day, week, year, or future. It gets overwhelming. I find myself getting trapped in this downward spiral of negative thinking that things won’t go right, which leads to stress and anxiety. Sound familiar to anyone? As a physical therapy student, I have had to make some adjustments to my life. I can’t always attend social events, I don’t always have time to workout, and I often have to sacrifice some sleep. I feel that I have to make the highest grades or else I have failed. As a result I often find myself in a state of fatigue and stress (cortisol levels through the roof!), which decreases my happiness and well-being. Not good.

Coping with stress is something I am actively working on, and something I encourage you to work on as well! We could all be a little easier on ourselves. Sometimes we have to let things go and just be happy with where we are in the present. Easier said than done, right? While small amounts of stress are inevitable, it should not be something that consumes your life. You could be the cleanest eater and exercise 2 times a day, yet your mental and emotional health may be drained. We NEED to make a change, but how do we do it? This post is meant to inform you a little more on how stress functions in the body, and some tips on what you can do today to hopefully decrease your stress levels!

So, how does stress work?

Cortisol is a chemical made by the body to deal with threats of stress. In small amounts we need cortisol as it functions to prevent the release of inflammatory substances and to assist in fat, protein, and carb metabolism. Our bodies are meant to respond to stress and then shut the stress system off within a short period of time. But what if our stress system is overactive?

When our bodies are in a constant state of stress and worry, there is a high amount of cortisol in the body for an extended period of time. Prolonged levels of cortisol in the body lead to: fatigue, poor memory and concentration, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, and a weakened immune system. In addition, high levels of cortisol leads to an increase in the amount of cytokines in your system. Cytokines are important for tissue healing and are present in response to infection or injury. However, as more cytokines are produced in this constant state of stress, the body becomes hypersensitive and goes into a state of systemic inflammation. In efforts to heal the body, your system basically goes into “overdrive,” causing swelling and inflammation for prolonged periods of time. When the body goes into chronic inflammation, it can have detrimental effects on your health. It can lead to damage in the heart, brain, GI tract, and other organs. Chronic inflammation is related to certain diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, arthritis, and obstructive respiratory diseases. Bottom line: we need to do something to reduce our overall stress and inflammation to preserve our health and wellness!

How can we kick the stress and lower cortisol?

1. Journal

Take 5 minutes each morning or night (or even just once a week) to write down what you are feeling. Sometimes we have so much going on in our heads that we need to just write it out and clear some of that mental clutter. Incorporate this as a morning ritual to set a positive tone for your day, or make it part of your night routine to help clear your head for better sleep.

2. Breathe

Just breathe. As simple as it sounds, most of us don’t take the time to just sit still and take a deep breath. When you feel yourself starting to get overwhelmed, anxious, or going into a downward spiral (guilty!), stop yourself and take 3 deep breaths. You will instantly feel more relaxed and calm...I promise!

3. Exercise

If you are a regular exerciser, you already working to reduce your stress levels! However, even if you are or are not a regular exerciser, moving for just 10 minutes helps increase blood flow and mental clarity. Although I try to workout ⅚ days a week, as a PT student, time does not always permit that. During exam week, stress levels are HIGH. A lot of times I will tell myself “I don’t have time to workout, I need to study.” While this may be true, sometimes I force myself to go on a quick jog, do 10 minutes of interval training on the treadmill, go walk my dog, or maybe do a quick HIIT workout. I always come back to studying more refreshed and energized.

4. Sip some hot tea

Yep. Another very simple trick! I am one of those people guilty of snacking in times of stress and anxiety. Trade your snack in for a cup of hot tea! The warmth and herbal scent have a calming effect. Try the “calming” tea by Yogi, filled with Ayurvedic herbs and adaptogens to help ease stress.

5. Think positively

Simple, right?! The final (and probably the hardest) tip: imagine success and manifest what you want. Instead of letting negative thoughts consume you, visualize yourself meeting all of your goals and doing your best. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can do. Write down a list of affirmations, or simply think them to yourself. The mind is so powerful…use it to your advantage!

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