Cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline are stress hormones produced in the adrenal glands of your endocrine (hormone) system. On a good day, cortisol is released into your blood stream to regulate important bodily functions like metabolism, controlling salt and water balance, memory formation, and anti-inflammation.
Chronic stress can cause your endocrine system to release excessive cortisol into your bloodstream. Research has linked ongoing increased cortisol levels with physical and mental health issues.
Cortisol is part of your hyperarousal response, better known as fight-or-flight. Even if you're not being chased by a wild animal, your body might be responding as though it's in extreme danger. Some people don't know how to access the "off" switch and live in a chronic state of stress.
If the source of stress or anxiety is not addressed, excessive stress hormones can wear away at your mental and physical health over time.
Here are some of the common symptoms of chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels:
Increased weight gain and difficulty in losing weight
Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
Decreases in your ability to concentrate, retain information and remember things
Mood swings and increased risk for anxiety and depression
Increases your blood pressure, and LDL (bad) cholesterol
Weakened immune system
Increased risk for heart disease
Decreases in your life expectancy
Bruising on the skin
Assess and Address Your Life
Work with a professional to assess your stress and anxiety levels to see if you need to make adjustments in your life. You may be especially susceptible to chronic stress if you lead a very busy lifestyle, have a history of trauma, codependence, insomnia, or untreated depression and anxiety.
You can also go to your doctor to get a lab test or a referral to an endocrinologist to get your hormones tested. There are kits you can buy online to test your cortisol levels at home, but of course, use your own discretion to make sure they are accurate.
Once you have completed your assessment, you can begin to implement lifestyle changes to regulate your cortisol levels on an ongoing basis. If you practice these strategies on a regular basis you will eventually notice a positive impact on your well-being. The key is to be consistent with your self-care practices and approach it as a lifelong journey.
How To Manage Your Cortisol Levels:
Bodywork. Get a massage or acupuncture.
Physical Activity. Exercise to release stress and pent up emotions.
Breathe. Practice deep breathing exercises. Focus on inhaling slowly and deeply into the diaphragm, and make your exhales longer than the inhale. Try 30-60 breaths every day to shift your entire physiology.
Go Into Nature. A lake, river, ocean, meadow or forest are ideal, but any body of water or garden will do. All it takes is 20 minutes to reset your cortisol levels (but don't be checking your phone the whole time).
Humor. Find something to laugh about. Go to a comedy club, watch a funny show or movie, or read a funny book. Laughter is good for your body, mind, and soul.
Meditate. Sit in silence and breathe every day for at least 15 minutes.
Catharsis. Write your thoughts and feelings in a journal or talk to a friend, family member, or counselor.
Food as Medicine. Eat a healthy, balanced, anti-inflammatory diet and reduce your sugar intake.
Volunteer. Be of service in your community by volunteering your time. Giving to others takes you out of your own suffering and shifts you into a state of generosity and gratitude.
Creative Expression. This can include anything from gardening and cooking to painting, sewing, sculpting, carpentry, poetry, dance, playing an instrument, or listening to music. The process of creating something new can help you release stress and anxiety.
Keep Good Company. Spend time with encouraging people who bring you joy and inspire you. Limit the amount of time you spend with people who tend to complain, drama seekers, or people who are chronically negative. Thought forms and emotions can be contagious.
If you're willing to change your lifestyle, or even implement one of these practices into your daily self-care routine, you can begin to rewire your brain. You'll not only have more command over your stress levels, but you'll also feel more energized, resilient and healthier overall.