Cortisol is widely considered to be the ‘stress hormone’ and is one of the big underlying factors that make chronic stress so dangerous.
Stress itself is actually the result of multiple hormones and neurotransmitters that are released in response to what your body and mind perceive as some kind of threat. Whether this is a direct physical threat, or a more abstract ongoing source of concern does not matter as far as your body is concerned. Either way, you will experience an increase in adrenaline, cortisol, glutamate and dopamine that will cause you to become focused, that will cause your muscles to tense, that will make your blood more likely to clot (in case of injury), that will make your senses become heightened and that will redirect more blood and oxygen to your muscles and brain versus others organs.
All these changes are highly adaptive as short-term responses to danger but over the long term they can begin to take a serious strain on the body.
While it’s unlikely to adrenaline to remain heightened to such a degree in cases of chronic stress – which is responsible for the heart palpitations and tremors we associate with confrontations or with public speaking – increased cortisol is common in those with ‘ongoing stress’.
Health Effects of Elevated Cortisol
And if you are someone who experiences elevated cortisol stress, then this can have serious implications for your health.
Cortisol can increase the risk of chronic depression and other mental illness and can also reduce life expectancy. At the same time it also increases blood pressure and heart rate and can impair memory and other mental functions. It is commonly linked with insomnia as well as conditions like TMJ and irritable bowel syndrome.
Likewise, cortisol stress can wreak havoc on your diet and any attempts at weight loss. That’s because cortisol increases lipogenesis – the storage of glucose as fat – as well as increasing cravings and encouraging ‘snacking’.
Cortisol Isn’t All Bad Though!
A common mistake here though is to think of cortisol as a ‘bad’ hormone and as ‘the enemy’. In fact, there is no such thing and any hormone or neurotransmitter produced by the body has both positive and negative impacts.
Cortisol for instance is also necessary for ‘eustress’. Eustress is perhaps best described as being a desirable form of stress – the kind of stress that motivates us to work harder and to avoid procrastination. Without any stress for instance, you might not be so inclined to study for an exam – a little eustress is required in order to motivate you in this context.
Likewise, cortisol is also necessary in order to help you wake up in the mornings. Cortisol levels are naturally heightened in the morning and this is what helps to bring our brains alive after being dormant during sleep. Here it works against melatonin to help rouse us from sleep and is actually necessary to combat ‘sleep inertia’. It’s for this reason that bright light can actually be very effective at helping you to wake up.
Managing Cortisol Stress
With all this in mind, how do you go about managing cortisol stress and making sure that you are maximizing the positive effects while minimizing the negative aspects?
Often this will come down mainly to mental discipline and the ability to switch your focus ‘on’ or ‘off’ from a given task. There is an art to being able to engage your full focus and eustress while performing important tasks, but also being able to ‘switch off’ afterwards when you go home to relax. Therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy or meditation can help you to train this ability.
Meanwhile, there are also a number of things you can do in order to reduce your levels of cortisol stress. These include engaging in regular physical activity, laughing, listening to music and socializing, all of which can help to encourage the production of neurotransmitters that can act as counterpoints to the cortisol.
Most important though is simply to recognize that cortisol and stress are tools that can be harnessed to improve your creativity, wakefulness and alertness. The key is to being able to engage them when they can be useful and to switch off the rest of the time.