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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Secret to Resilience--Calming Your Cortisol Levels and Stress Response

Sit, Rest, Work Q'Art
Susan J Meyerott with photography by William R Brooksher

Resilience? Who has Time to Bounce Back from Stress?

 Who isn't dealing with some type of stress in their lives right now? On a world level, tempers are flaring and fears rising as jobs, personal income, and retirement monies dwindle. On a personal level, each of us is dealing with our own fear and anxiety of what this all means to us, and it's taking its toll.

Recently, I talked with one person experiencing a relapse of a severe upper respiratory illness, another recovering from pneumonia, and still another whose spouse is recovering from a heart attack. What did each of them have in common?-- High levels of stress leading to high levels of the stress-hormones--adrenaline and cortisol.

We are always training our bodies through the choices we make. To have the health and energy to cope and continue to thrive despite the world-wide and personal crises, we need to make conscious choices to take care of ourselves in ways that bring our stress-hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, back down on a daily basis-- and especially after we deal with particularly stressful experiences.

Stop the World--I want to get off!

"Fisherman have always known that the sea is dangerous and the storm is terrible, but they've never considered those sufficient reasons to remain ashore." Vincent Van Gogh

 No question we are living in troubled times. But that doesn't mean we can't rise to the challenge and find ways to not only weather the stormy days, but learn to sail through to greener shores. After we step into the water at high tide we must consciously and deliberately step back into still waters to rest.

The good news is our bodies have adapted to effectively deal with stress. But its up to us to take action and train our bodies to be resilient so we are strengthened, not weakened by our life experience.

Stress Won't Kill You-- But not taking care of it will!

What is Stress? ~ A perceived sense of:
  • Threat
  • Loss of control
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness, and/or
  • Unpredictability

In that instant when something catches you off guard, your brain downshifts into the lower brain, moving you into a fight or flight mode, and sets in motion the release of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. This is a good thing.

These stress-hormones help you react quickly by raising your heart rate and blood pressure, and releasing energy sources into the bloodstream, such as sugar, to make fuel available to your muscles. This is how your body helps you get through your daily crises.

But too much of a good thing becomes a problem if you fail to give your body time to recover from being in this high-stress mode.

Maintaining chronically high levels of the stress-hormone cortisol leads to three health damaging effects:
  • High blood sugar, leading to insulin resistance;
  • High blood pressure, and
  • An increase in abdominal fat.
 Fat deposited around your belly is associated with more health problems than fat deposited elsewhere, including lower levels of HDL Cholesterol (good one), higher levels LDL Cholesterol (bad one), insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

To calm your cortisol and other stress-hormone levels you must first recognize you are stressed, and then be willing to engage in self-calming activities that produce the relaxation response from your body.

The good news is it is physiologically impossible for you to be stressed and relaxed at the same time. When you make the decision to participate in activities that produce the relaxation response, your body will rebalance.

How Do I Know if I'm Suffering from Chronic Stress?

We're not always conscious we're in a constant state of stress. Sometimes we're working so hard to deal with the issues we ignore the signs and symptoms. Furthermore, when our heart rate goes above 100, our bodies release adrenaline that creates an emotional and mental fog that sends clear thinking out the window. 

We all have a stress signature that we can learn to focus on to cue us to stop, unwind and participate in self-calming activities. You don't need to notice all of your signs and symptoms of chronic stress, you just have to pick out one and let that be your guide to readjusting what you're doing.

Do You Experience Any of these Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Stress?
  • Chronic fatigue
  • TMJ problems--clenching of teeth
  • Moodiness
  • Anxiety and Irritability
  • Anger (fear managed by anger)
  • Depression
  • Hardening of the attitudes
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Tearfulness
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Digestive difficulties
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Increased deposit of fat in the belly
  • Craving carbohydrates
  • Binge eating
  • Preoccupation with a stressful situation
  • Getting ill after finals or completion of a stressful project
  • Getting sick on vacation
 How to Bounce Back to Your Resilient Self

Start by identifying all signs and symptoms you experience in response to stress, then choose one to look for in your daily life. When you notice your stress signal is present, act, don't react to the information; and describe, don't judge what is going on.

Everyone gets stressed. If you discover you're chronically stressed, it doesn't mean you are weak, incompetent, out of control or a bad person. Leave the judgment out--describe what is going on and chose one immediate step to take a moment to relax.

Cortisol and Stress Calming Suggestions
  • Control what you can control.
  • Take action on the little things. 
  • Exercise for relaxation, not for hard core fitness.
  • Take a 5-15 minute walk break.
  • Have some black or green tea.
  • Find things to laugh about. Experiencing humor and laughter can lower cortisol levels.
  • Enjoy relaxing music.
  • Confide in a trusted friend. 
  • Get a good night's rest. If you're having difficulty sleeping, at least rest and practice focusing on your breathing, consciously slowing down your inhales and exhales.
  • Cry. Crying may be our bodies' way of eliminating stress-hormones from our system.
  • Supplement with magnesium and omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oil, krill oil and flax seeds)
Don't let your life difficulties beat you down. Choose to take actions that contribute to your self-confidence and well-being.  You're worth it.
Serenity Prayer
  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
 The courage to change the things I can,
 And the wisdom to know the difference.


Jean | Delightful Repast said...

Sue, I like to reread this post from time to time. That tells you something right there, doesn't it? :)

Susan J Meyerott, M.S. said...

HaHaHa, Jean. I felt the need to post it...that tell's you something right there too! So glad it works for you to reread just like it works for me.