Do you remember the olden days when you were young and carefree? You know, you’d get up with a smile, excited to face the challenges of the day as opportunities to improve your world.
Or how about when you would just look at your spouse or children and just feel pure and simple joy and enjoyment at simply spending the day with them without thinking about the next mortgage payment or all the demands work was placing on you.
Did you notice when the times changed for you? When you started to feel the burden of stress and most of your thoughts became counted as worries or fears? I’m not talking about a clinical type of depression or anything, but more about how adulthood, parenthood, professional life, and well, even pandemic life takes its toll on us. More and more of us are stressed out and we can’t remember the last time we weren’t stressed.
Because living with high stress can cause some serious health concerns, we wanted to share some practical and helpful ways to lower your stress and hopefully ward off the long term effects of high stress on your health and wellness. After all, less stress means better quality of life for you and for those around you. Imagine being able to just relax and enjoy your family and friends again without the constant worry and fear stress can cause? Wouldn’t that be great?
Let’s start with some basics, then we’ll share some strategies for reducing your stress and your cortisol.
There is a Stress Hormone?
It’s not quite that simple, but at the risk of oversimplifying it, you bet there is! Obviously it is a bit more complicated, but without getting too detailed, we all have this hormone called Cortisol that plays an important role in regulating several important things our body does, including:
- Managing how our bodies use carbohydrates, fats and proteins
- Keeping inflammation down
- Regulating our blood pressure
- Regulating our blood sugar levels (glucose)
- Regulating our sleep/wake cycle
- Boosting our energy so we can handle our stress and restoring the balance afterward.
How Does Cortisol Work Exactly?
When we’re stressed, our body makes more cortisol. So, when we experience stressful thoughts and emotions like fear, overwhelm, anxiety, anger, and more, our body sounds an alarm button and increases its production of cortisol to help keep things like our blood sugar levels and blood pressure within healthy ranges. When the stress passes, our body responds reduces how much cortisol it makes until our next serious encounter with stress.
What if We’re Under Constant Stress and the Alarm Button Stays On?
Well, if we’re under constant stress, our cortisol levels don’t decrease as they should. When our bodies have high levels of cortisol for long periods of time many of our body’s most important functions can be derailed which can an weaken our immune response and lead to the development of chronic health issues such as:
- Higher susceptibility to viral illnesses
- Anxiety and depression
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration problems
- Problems with digestion
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain
Sound familiar? So, what can we do?
For most of us, reducing our stress would mean drastically changing our circumstances or perhaps giving up some of the very things that we love, our children, our spouses, our careers.
That's not so realistic, is it? We’ve got few easier ideas that are far more realistic and much easier to pull off!
- Change your thoughts!
We’ve already shared that stressful thoughts and emotions are enough to increase our cortisol levels causing our body to be stressed. Since we are constantly exposed to our thoughts and our emotions, we can learn to change them rather than making drastic unrealistic changes to our life circumstances.
Changing our thoughts is both a skill, and a habit. It doesn’t mean avoiding reality, it means looking at it in another way. For instance, if the glass is half full, it is also half empty right? Both are true statements. But how you choose to look at it is all in your perspective. Choosing to view the situation in another way takes effort, but pays high dividends, resulting in a high success rate!! Take responsibility for your thoughts, tell a different story, choose your response!
I am quite sure most of you have heard about how gratitude as an emotion can be so helpful in suppressing our stress response, as it lowers our cortisol hormone. Seeking to find gratitude every day is a skill that can be developed and encouraged throughout the act of writing down and journaling your gratitude experience. Give journaling a try. You would be amazed at how therapeutic it can be!
- Deep belly breathing
So under-rated, and so basic that many people dismiss it. Think about it. When you are busy, stressed, racing around, you are breathing shallow breaths. This sends the brain the message that you must be fighting, flighting or freezing as a result of a dangerous situation. If everything was fine and you were safe, you would be breathing deep full breaths and exhaling slowly, pausing in between breaths. How many of us do this? It is only done when we are mindful of it.
One way to do that is by building this breathing practice into our day by setting a timer on our phones every hour and doing box breathing for 5 minutes. That’s all it takes. There are many forms of breathing, and they are all effective. Box breathing is breathing in for the same number of seconds, holding it in for the same number of seconds, exhaling for the same number of seconds, and pausing at the bottom for same number of seconds. An ideal sequence is 4-4-4-4, taking great care to expand your belly on the inhale. This is so great for calming your stress response and promoting healing in your body.