Cortisol and Stress

The ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response was designed to help us to flee immediate danger. Stress is not something we can reach out and touch. It’s our emotional response to a given situation. Things that some find stressful, others may not. We are all conditioned to respond to situations differently. The good news is that you created this conditioning, so you can also change it!

Under stressful conditions, cortisol is released, providing the body with glucose by tapping into stores via the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor and, in the short term, it’s not harmful. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces excess glucose, leading to an increase in blood sugar and insulin levels.

Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight ‘emergency’ situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear. Necessary if faced with imminent danger in the short term, but highly detrimental if exposed to this level of cortisol in the long term.

YES, STRESS CAN MAKE YOU FAT!

How to lower cortisol levels

Exercise: particularly high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress and systemic cortisol levels. Ironically, it’s usually the first thing we drop from our schedule when we’re stressed. MAKE time to be physically active, EVERYDAY.

Nutrition and blood sugar stability: The most significant ‘side effect’ of improving blood sugar stability is a feeling of calm. This newfound calmness is definitely attributable to the physiological changes in your body. It’s reinforced by a feeling of self-confidence in finally gaining an understanding of your body, instead of fighting a losing battle against it.

 Mindfulness: As they say, life is what happens when you put your phone down!

In our fast-paced world, it’s important to practise being ‘present’ and continuing to remind yourself to do so.

Great expectations: In general terms, the greater the distance between your expectations and reality, the greater the perceived stress! Whether it’s family, a friend, a colleague or your workplace in general, if you continue to have an unrealistic expectation of others, you will continually feel disappointed and frustrated. Stressed! Change your expectations and your frustration will be greatly reduced. You may even feel pleasantly surprised when your expectations are exceeded!

Putting things into perspective: When you are confronted with stressful situations, it can be helpful to put things into perspective. Think about the worst-case scenario if the situation escalates to the extreme. Often, you will find that the potential consequences would not be as negative as you may have initially thought and often, it’s unlikely to escalate to this level anyway. If you’re unable to do this ‘in the heat of the moment’, use this as a reflective tool when the emotion has subsided. It may help you in similar situations in the future.

Make the habit of keeping a ‘stress diary’ your new daily activity. If you experience a stressful episode, write down the source of stress, your reaction to it and, at the end of the day, reflect on a possible alternative reaction the next time something similar occurs. Becoming aware of your behavioral patterns and putting things into perspective will often reduce your stress levels.

Donna Aston - Author

Nutritionist Certified Fitness Trainer Author of five best-selling health & fitness books Emotional Intelligence Certified Practitioner (Genos) Managing Director: Aston & Co. Pty. Ltd. Fitness advisor: Prevention Australia Magazine & SEN radio CIRQ acrobatic master trainer

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