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Originally posted as: Understanding Your Stress Hormone So You can Learn to Control it[June 2016]
Today we are going to talk about a very important hormone in our bodies called cortisol – what it is, how it can hurt us and one thing you can do right away to start getting it under control.
This is an important topic for you to know about because most people aren't aware of how they are wired and what they might be doing to actually increase their own stress and create some of the many health issues that can come with too much cortisol. Lacking energy, feeling overwhelmed, overreacting… can all stop you from being the vibrant, powerful mom you are meant to be… and these are just a few of the direct results of out of whack cortisol.
If I had my way this is the kind of topic that would be added into the school curriculum so that our future generations could start the path to awareness much earlier. Of course they'd also learn about relationship building, masculine feminine energy and other topics I feel are so important to us all. Since they haven't asked me to create the education curriculum yet, I will settle for sharing it with as many adults as I can in hopes that they will learn to embrace it, role model it and at some point even teach it to the children in their lives.
A typical day...
Let's look at a possible day in life and see if I can illustrate for you how cortisol flows. Imagine you are in a meeting at work (or if your main job is being a mom you are at some sort of volunteer meeting, training or other important formal type of event) so your phone is on vibrate and suddenly it buzzes. You glance down and see it is your child's school calling. Your heart skips a beat and you wonder, "Is something wrong?"
Now, of course, because of Murphy's Law, you are called upon at that particular moment to speak - which is the reason you are at the meeting in the first place. You stammer a little, tell yourself your child is probably fine and start into your talk just as your phone buzzes again! Your pulse is dancing in your veins and you're finding it a bit difficult to think clearly. It's taking every bit of your self control not to just run out of the meeting.
Finally, you are done – a whole 7 minutes have gone by – you have no idea if you even said what you had meant to say…but you don't care. You excuse yourself and leave the room. Immediately you push the callback option and wait for your phone to ring. Except, instead of ringing you hear nothing! You're in the dreaded dead zone – you stare at your phone – zero bars! OMG the phone worked fine in the meeting room – how could it not work in the hallway?
You frantically search for the magic spot where your phone will work and end up going all the way outside before you can dial. As your phone starts to ring an ambulance races down the street. You can't hear anything and the butterflies in your stomach are growing into bat sized creatures. You think you hear the school answer – so you shout to hold on and wait for the ambulance to hurry on by.
Finally the ambulance fades into the distance and you tell the school who you are and ask why they were calling… "Oh… just a minute!" She puts you on hold for 3 minutes - that's a long time to wait when you are anxious about what is going on!
"Sorry about that," she says out of breath. "I was hoping to catch your son, before he went out to recess, but I missed him. It was no big deal really – we're doing positive reinforcement calls and so your son was just calling you to tell you he did well sitting through assembly today."
Does that sound like a situation you could relate to? It doesn't need to be a mysterious phone call – it could the photocopier breaking when you have to quickly copy something important; it could be driving on treacherous roads; or maybe it's waiting for the best time to tell someone something you think might upset them. The point is, any incident that raises intense emotions, but doesn't require you to be stronger and faster could create the reaction we're about to look at in more detail.
What's happening in your body?
Let me tell you what was happening in your body during this time. The moment your phone buzzed the first time (or whenever the initial emotional spike was) a part of your brain called the hypothalamus – which has no access to the outside world and relies on your senses; sight, hearing, touch, smell, thoughts, to find out what is going on – receives a code red.
Code red results in an automatic message to the pituitary to send out cortisol. The pituitary relays that message to the adrenals (little pyramids on top of your kidneys) to release cortisol… and the adrenals release cortisol.
Cortisol is a life giving hormone, and your body does not want to waste it, so there is a feedback loop, where a little bit of the cortisol makes it way back up to the hypothalamus so that it knows cortisol was released. In a normal situation that would turn off the cortisol switch.
If the code red or danger signal continues to come in, the cortisol messenger is not even acknowledged. It's like your brain is in lock-down until the crisis has been dealt with.
Let me make sure you are with me on this – your brain does not have access to the outside world, so it doesn't know the difference between you finding your child at the top of a tall ladder someone forgot against the house and a bee buzzing around your head.
If you push the alarm…it's a code red – end of story! In the situation I just shared, the cortisol shut off message is not received, because the code red messages continue to come in – phone buzzing (starts the sequence); called upon to talk; phone buzzes again; no signal; trying to find signal; ambulance, the secretary puts you on hold…So for that full amount of time – let's say 20 minutes - cortisol is being released into your body.
Now you have all this cortisol surging through your body and not being needed – because you don't need to be faster and stronger at this moment.
What will your body do with all that cortisol?
Your body doesn't want to get rid of the cortisol though, so it is stored in the body wherever it can be. This can cause no end of challenges and misdiagnosis:
- low thyroid
- insulin resistance
- decreased estrogen and progesterone (because their ingredients are stolen to make excess cortisol) resulting in all kinds of health problems – PCOS, PMS, bad cramps – even unhealthy hair and confidence issues
- really stubborn fat around your middle sometimes known as a muffin top or spare tire that no amount of exercise or dieting will get rid of...
So think about that for a moment – how many times a day is your brain being given a code red – danger signal, when in fact it's really more like a frustrating situation, maybe a forgotten yogurt for your lunch, a spider walking across the room, a near miss in your car?
Way too much and that's why living on autopilot and just reacting rather than understanding what's really going on and ensuring your responses are relative to the situation is important. One of my mentors Stacey Martino likes to say you can live your life by default (autopilot) or live it by design...it's your choice.
A few key points to understanding cortisol...
Cortisol is a master hormone that is released anytime you are in a stressful situation (too much cortisol also causes your body to be stressed)!
Cortisol makes you faster and stronger – similar to adrenaline and so it's very important in emergency situations that require you to run fast, climb a tree, lift something heavy…. but not required when you're late for a meeting, can't get the photocopier to work, your child won't take a bath or when a driver cuts you off on the way home.
Cortisol helps keep you feeling calm, cool and collected throughout your day; influences how refreshed you feel upon waking up in the morning; causes many food cravings (chocolate! sugar!) along with a desire to eat nutrient dense food on purpose; how proactive you are and so on.
Too much unneeded cortisol will wreak havoc in your body - besides the thyroid, insulin, fat and reproductive hormone issues I mentioned earlier, it's also been linked to MS, insomnia, brain health and even bone health.
A continual demand for cortisol can also hurt and potentially burn out your adrenals creating a whole other set of very serious health problems.
Cortisol is not a monster – you need it to live and once you understand what you are doing to overuse it, and learn how to balance it, you will truly feel at your best in life.
What's the answer… 5 tips for decreasing cortisol:
1. Notice your thoughts and limit the danger signals. This sounds simple – and it is; but unfortunately simple and easy are not the same thing. If you've never really been one to tune into your thoughts, then this will be especially difficult.
So start, by switching off autopilot and noticing what you are thinking….especially when difficult situations arise. In a situation like we just talked about, you might take a deep breath when your phone buzzes the second time and send the thought to your brain that all is fine – I've got this.
Even if it turned out the school was calling you because your child was hurt, you still don't need all that cortisol surging through your body to be at your best. In fact, this type of situation actually diverts blood from your brain making you less smart than you would normally be, so not controlling this can cause you to make bad decisions and shrink your brain over time!
Take charge of your thoughts in these situations and start consciously sending the message that you are okay – I'm good; I've got this; All's fine – lots of time; relax…
2. Breathe deep. Breathing deep into your belly is an excellent way to calm your system and it actually helps your body switch from the fight/flight/freeze nervous system (which is when your body is preparing for battle) to the rest and recharge nervous system (which is where all the cleaning, recharging, building happens). So breathing deep into your belly will help your body stop pumping the cortisol and help with the clean up process as well.
In my stress programs I often suggest people create little "Breathe" cards and post them around their home, car or workplace, to remind them to take deep breaths several times throughout the day.
In line with this, I should mention that breathing in through the nose also switches you from the warrior stance – fight/flight/freeze - to the rest and recharge nervous system…
3. Get the oxytocin flowing; oxytocin is another hormone that actually helps you burn off excess cortisol and is considered to be the love or bonding hormone. It floods your body with a beautiful feeling that helps to repair, recharge and make you happy.
I talk about how to get this hormone flowing in my free report, "5 Secrets to Being a Vibrant Mom" which I highly recommend you get if you don't have it already.
4. Enjoy a massage at least once a month; Massages are a wonderful way to stimulate the vegus nerve (which is what happens with the oxytocin breath as well)…this relaxes you and helps your body move out toxins. This should be a pleasurable experience, so if it's not find another massage therapist. According to Dr. Sara Gottfried (who trained me in the Hormone Cure and is the reason I talk about hormones as much as I do), studies show deep-tissue massage lowers cortisol and increases oxytocin.
5. Refuse to worry; Worrying is something humans do that is never helpful (it does not get people home safely, improve their health or change the weather).
Worry zaps you of your strength in the moment and creates a code red for cortisol.
It is not in your genes…I can't tell you how many people try to tell me they have no choice – or that they come by it honestly…but that's just an excuse for not wanting to break a problematic pattern in their life. It is okay to make a plan for things going awry, but it does not help you or anyone to carry worry around with you.
So notice when you worry and make a point of stopping this energy drain in its tracks.
I have a worry map I use when I work with people which guides them through some very simple questions – such as Does the worry belong to you? and Is there anything you can do about it? to help them recognize when to take action; and when (as well as how) to let things go.
So, there you have it… 5 things you can use to start standing in your power and decreasing the amount of excess cortisol you have flowing in your body. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list, but it is a good start that can influence your health, your parenting, your productivity and virtually every area of your life in a positive way….but only if you choose to put some of these ideas into action.
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