Cortisol and Chronic Stress

Karina Schreurs
Karina Schreurs, Jun 14 2018, 4 minute readKarina has a cross cultural background working with families through her roles in health and education. Training in Occupational Therapy and post-graduate study in the Neuro-Sequential Model of Therapeutics, Cognition and Sensory Processing, position her to present neurological understanding in an easy, relevant and practical way.

After running our first “Unveiling Anxiety Neurologically” and as I’m preparing for the “Unveiling Weight-Loss Neurologically”, I have been thinking about cortisol (a steroid hormone) and the damage which can be caused if the levels are too high. Let’s be clear: we need some level of cortisol as it helps us function, but under chronic stress cortisol levels become too high, and this impacts our digestion, sleep, mood, energy and more.

Heightened cortisol levels come with chronic levels of stress. I’m sure you will have experienced this: if you ever feel like there isn’t ever enough time, you live with a list of a million things to do, or you wake up exhausted after a long nights sleep. You might even live with a high need for control and predictability. When our lives are led by lack, we find ourselves under stress and this stress raises our cortisol level.

High levels of cortisol impact us in some of the following ways:

  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Compromised cognition (our brains feel foggy)
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Mood swings and sugar imbalances
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Poor sleep

It feels a little like this egg.  Squeezed on all sides, about to crumble, but somehow just holding on.

There is much literature written on how we can lower our cortisol though a low GI diet, exercise, relaxation and sleep. These are all so helpful in our journey to restoring a good level. But another way that we can see cortisol levels lowered is through understanding the process of response from a neurological perspective.

There are three stages of response to threat. When we understand these stages, we can build strategies and supports into our lives which will keep us at peace – even in stressful situations.  These stages are:

  1. Social Safety: we look for others who will keep us safe. When our relationships are all founded in benefits and demands, we often don’t experience safety. Establishing moments of connection builds safety. We need to intentionally build our social world so that even under distress we can experience safety. The safer the social world, the less likely we are to be stressed.  We need one another more than we realise!
  2. When threat is perceived the body prepares for action by sending a message to the Pituitary Gland and adrenaline is released. This is kind of like giving the body a fright which prepares it for action. For many, the feeling of adrenaline is a scary thing. It can feel like we are taken from peace and catapulted to another place. Learning to see adrenaline for what it is and that we are actually ok, helps bring the brain back to baseline in our cortical modulation.
  3. If threat remains, then the pituitary gland messages the adrenal gland and cortisol is released. This is where chronic stress is present. What we say to ourselves, how we make judgements, use control and the role doubt can play, all add to this experience of stress. Learning ways of responding differently after the initial adrenaline kick helps us immensely. Practicing self-compassion, believing in ourselves, choosing trust and walking in forgiveness even when mistakes are made move us from a place of threat back into safety simply through our thought process. Believing we can do this and more, holding true that doing something (no matter how poor we perform) is better than nothing because at least then we are on the path to getting better. Language like, “what was I thinking when I did that, I am an idiot, I am useless” will only increase cortisol. Change what you think of who you are and cortisol will lessen.

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