In many ways, we aren’t so different from our cave man ancestors…our bodies are hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect us from danger, predators, and other aggressors. The Bengal tiger may not be roaming our back yard waiting to pounce, but that doesn’t mean life is stress-free.
The natural stress response releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine during situations interpreted as potentially dangerous…a large barking dog runs at you during your morning walk…a semi moves into your lane on the highway, cutting you off…your boss is yelling at you because you missed a deadline at the office…you find out your spouse is having an affair. Your hypothalamus at the base of your brain sets off an alarm system in the body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this endocrine system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. These stress hormones mobilize energy from storage to muscles, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate and shutting down metabolic processes such as digestion, reproduction, growth, and immunity. This is what allows a mother of a toddler to pick up a refrigerator that has fallen on her child…super-human physical feats in crisis.
This Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems are remarkable body regulators. But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that ‘fight or flight’ reaction never turns off. The long-term activation of the stress-response system, and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can disrupt almost all your body’s precesses. This puts you at increased risk for anxiety…depression…digestive problems…heart disease…sleep problems…weight gain…memory and concentration impairment..a depletion of energy storage…stress-induced hypertension…ulcers…decrease in testosterone levels in males and irregular menstrual cycles in females…neurological disorders…IBS…addictions…mental conditions such as compulsive disorders.
That’s why it is so important to learn ways to manage daily stress. Regular physical activity – any aerobic activity – can help burn-up cortisol. Just remember that a little cardio goes a long way. Mindfulness and meditation – deep breathing engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within the nervous system to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. Social connectivity – social aggression and isolation lead to increased levels of cortisol. Close knit human bonds are vital for physical and mental health. The vagus nerve responds to social connection and physical touch to relax the parasympathetic nervous system. Laughter and levity – having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Music – listening to music you love and fits the mood you are in has been shown to lower cortisol levels.
Affirmation: I know my thoughts can create health in my body and peace in my emotions.