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. Excessive cortisol can wear away at your mental and physical health over time.
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 Your Lifestyle
Work with a professional counselor to assess your stress and anxiety levels in order to see if you need to make adjustments to your lifestyle. You may be especially susceptible to chronic stress if you lead a very busy or fast-paced life, or if you have a history of trauma, codependence, insomnia, or untreated depression and anxiety.
In order to rule out an underlying medical issue, you can ask your doctor for a lab test or a referral to an endocrinologist to get your hormones tested.
Once you have identified the factors contributing to stress and anxiety, you can begin to implement healthy lifestyle changes. As you gain more command over your life you'll feel more resilient and well-equipped to deal with any challenges and stressors that come your way. The key is to be consistent with your self-care/self-regulation practices and approach this process as a lifelong journey.
How To Manage Stress and Reduce Cortisol Levels:
Bodywork. Get a massage or acupuncture to strengthen your immune system, manage pain, reduce tension, and decrease the impact of stress on your body.
Physical Activity. Exercise to release stress and pent-up emotions. A sedentary lifestyle tends to exacerbate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic stress.
Deep Breathing. Practice deep belly breathing exercises every day for at least 5 minutes. Explore 5-minute breathing practices here.
Be in Nature. Spending at least 20 minutes in nature will help you to reset your cortisol level and increase positive emotions. This can include going to a lake, river, ocean, meadow, forest, garden, or park.
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 focus on slow, belly breathing for at least 15 minutes per day. Meditation can help you quiet your mind, which helps to relax the body. Explore the healing benefits of meditation here.
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. Learn more about the gut-brain connection, inflammation, and the vagus nerve here.
Volunteer. Be of service to your community by volunteering your time. Giving to others takes you out of your own suffering and helps you shift into a state of generosity and gratitude.
Creative Expression. The creative process can help you work through emotions and release stress and anxiety. This can include anything from gardening and cooking to painting, sewing, sculpting, carpentry, poetry, dance, playing an instrument, or listening to music.
Keep Good Company. Spend time with encouraging people who bring you joy and inspiration. Limit the amount of time you spend with people who tend to complain a lot or seek drama. Thoughts and emotions can be contagious.