Imagine an alarm clock. Not a nice one, either, but one of those with a super-loud, obnoxious ring that nearly throws you out of bed, wide awake with heart pounding. The good news? You're not going to be late for work. The alarm clock did its job.
But imagine if you had to take that alarm clock with you all day, knowing that it would go off at random times during the day, each time jolting your body with the same sort of startled, anxious response. By the end of the day you would be exhausted, mentally and physically.
Sound a little ridiculous? It does. Except we experience the same thing when we are operating at such stress levels that our cortisol kicks into gear every time we turn around.
EmpowHer's encyclopedia explains cortisol like this:
"Cortisol is manufactured from cholesterol by the adrenal glands. Its secretion is controlled by hormones released from the pituitary gland and hypothalamus . Cortisol levels vary according to a daily (circadian) rhythm , but peak at times of stress. It stimulates the central nervous system , increases water retention and blood sugar levels (available energy), stimulates the metabolism of proteins (to repair injuries), and regulates blood pressure. Cortisol is also an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic agent, and reduces the actions of the immune system . Molecules from the same family, such as cortisone, are used as medications to control inflammation, allergy (asthma), and graft rejection."
There's a lot of good in there. Cortisol is necessary and important. But the part I'm writing about is the part about how it peaks at times of stress. Perhaps a police car drives by, and we worry that he'll see that our inspection sticker is expired. Perhaps our boss is walking toward our desk, and doesn't have a good look on her face. The phone rings a million times a day with people wanting attention; an important deadline looms; the kids need to be picked up from school, and traffic is a nightmare.
If you've heard of the "flight or fight" syndrome, you know what I'm talking about. Your body kicks into high gear, sending cortisol into your bloodstream. You get a quick burst of energy (which in the cave days would have allowed you to run from the bear or lion threatening your life), your senses are heightened, and your response time is quicker. You have the ability to handle the stressful issue at hand. The alarm clock has worked.
The problem is this: Today, we are so stressed that we do this over and over again, all day long, without ever relaxing back into "normal." We stay anxious all the time. Our alarm clocks are constantly going off. And our cortisol levels reflect this. Read this, from about.com:
"Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:
•Impaired cognitive performance
•Suppressed thyroid function
•Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
•Decreased bone density
•Decrease in muscle tissue
•Higher blood pressure
•Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
•Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, the development of , higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems."
Here are some EmpowHer videos from Dr. Marianne Legato that talk about how cortisol affects us:
What can you do? There's a big picture and a smaller picture. The big picture is to keep trying to lower your daily stress level, by changing your lifestyle where you can. And the smaller picture is to learn ways to relax your body and mind, like journaling, deep breathing, meditation, yoga, listening to music and so on. It doesn't matter how you do it, but it matters that you do it.
Here's that article, which includes suggestions and more links:
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