Stress has unfortunately become such a common experience in so many of our lives — sometimes it is easy to recognize stress and its cause, while other times it can be difficult to pinpoint the root of it or even know it exists until you begin to experience some of the signs and symptoms.
Stress can be hard to identify, as it manifests in different ways. Some common symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, tense, nervous, lonely, uninterested, restless, tired and unfocused. These signs of stress can justifyingly raise questions and concerns about mental health, and it’s important to take them seriously.
Stress isn’t always unhealthy to endure. In small amounts at the right time, it’s a benefit that can keep you safe and out of danger.
But when stress levels are high, so is cortisol (the “stress hormone”), and when cortisol levels are high long-term, it can have far-reaching impacts on both mental and physical well-being.
In this post, you’ll learn how stress and cortisol are related, the dangers of high cortisol, and how to lower cortisol while managing stress — resulting in a happier, healthier you.
How stress and cortisol are related
Cortisol is a hormone made in the adrenal glands. When stressed, your body releases more cortisol, alerting it to focus its energy on the stressor in order to keep the body alive. This can cause some of the systems in your body that are managed by cortisol (like your digestive and immune systems) to experience disruptions, as many non-essential organs are shut off in order to prioritize hormones and organs that keep you alive.
When you are relaxed, cortisol levels in your body go down as your body no longer senses a threat. This, in turn, helps boost your immune system and aid in digestion, among many other functions. Cortisol is responsible for regulating weight, appetite, metabolism, blood pressure and glucose.
Conversely, chronic or long-term stress can cause long-term negative effects, as chronic stress can lead to long-term elevated cortisol levels in the body.
The impact of high cortisol on the body
High cortisol levels over a long period of time can cause damage to the body in a number of ways. It can increase blood pressure, cause weight gain, lead to heart disease, and cause mood changes, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches, pre-diabetes and chronic diseases, including Cushing Syndrome. This makes learning how to lower cortisol and manage stress incredibly important.
Tips for managing stress and lowering cortisol
Finding ways to reduce cortisol in your day-to-day life is essential if you’ve experienced any stress for an extended period of time. The good news is that there are many ways to lower cortisol and manage stress over the long-term. It just takes a bit of will, motivation and accountability to make certain lifestyle and habit changes to not only manage stress and lower cortisol, but also improve your overall health and well-being.
Some ways to reduce cortisol include:
Diet: Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce cortisol levels since it is high in fiber, which helps regulate gut bacteria. Having a healthy gut microbiome helps regulate hormone levels. B-12, folic acid, magnesium and Vitamin C can also help metabolize and/or regulate cortisol. Reducing your caffeine intake is also helpful, as caffeine can increase cortisol levels. Curing fatigue is more effective over time by skipping the morning cup of Joe in favor of the hormone-balancing benefits that come with it. If you feel like you need support in this area, it can be helpful to talk with a therapist about putting together a medical team to address your symptoms. You may be referred to a physician, a nutritionist or dietician.
Sleep: Having a consistent sleep schedule with 7-9 hours of sleep per night allows your body the time it needs to rest, recuperate and heal. It can be beneficial to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day, give or take 30 minutes. It can also help to have good “sleep hygiene” consisting of healthy sleep habits, which include having a nighttime routine that helps your body prepare for sleep. Getting good quality sleep on a consistent basis also creates a positive cycle with mental health: it’s easier to regulate stress and emotions with good quality sleep, and having regulated emotions makes getting good quality sleep easier.
Exercise: If you’re wondering how to get cortisol levels down through exercise, the key is to not overdo it. While exercise on a consistent basis is an overall natural way to regulate cortisol and manage stress, too much exercise can have the opposite effect, since cortisol levels rise during higher levels of physical activity. This is normally just temporary, however, and you can still experience the overall benefit if you keep your exercise sessions to around 30 to 40 minutes per day, five days per week.
In addition to these bigger lifestyle adjustments you can make to naturally lower cortisol, there are also a variety of activities you can engage in that might help, including:
- Deep breathing exercises
- Engaging in a hobby
- Spending time with pets
- Practicing mindfulness
- Spending time outdoors
- Cultivating a mindset of gratitude and positive thinking
- Laughing and having fun
- Listening to relaxing music
- Having healthy relationships with others
- Creating awareness of stressful thoughts
Therapy for managing stress
If you’re unsure where to begin on your journey toward managing stress and lowering cortisol, seeing a therapist for regular sessions can be quite helpful. A therapist can help you set goals for yourself, provide motivation and inspiration, hold you accountable and work with you to develop a comprehensive medical team to address each of your needs. A licensed therapist can guide you through deep breathing exercises, help challenge stressful or negative thoughts, work with you toward developing healthy relationships, and help you cultivate a mindset of positivity and gratitude. A therapist may also work with you on eliminating any feelings of guilt, shame or inadequacy that you may be experiencing, as they can contribute toward increased cortisol levels if left unchecked.
Stress and high cortisol levels don’t have to wreak havoc on your life any longer. Help is available, and if you’d like some extra support, you can book an appointment with Two Chairs to be matched with the right therapist for you.