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9 Easy ways to lower stress and cortisol

Jane first entered my office in an agitated state. She repeatedly touched her hair, clenched her hands, and crossed and re-crossed her legs. She plopped down in the chair opposite and immediately began to talk. “I just can’t slow down. I’m constantly exhausted. I’m stressed. I know I need to stop but I can’t seem to relax. I don’t eat much but I’m putting on weight, yet I go to my weekly spin classes and gym classes.”

Jane then went on to tell me that her period had stopped and that she might be entering perimenopause. She had begun to have night sweats and palpitations and was struggling to sleep. She would then wake feeling exhausted and the cycle would continue.

Jane lives on caffeine and only gets time to cram in a sandwich whilst helping with her kid’s art project or making their tea at 4 pm. By the time she sits down at 8 pm at night, she can’t be bothered to eat properly so she has a glass of wine, nibbles on some crisps and crawls to bed around 11 pm.

Jane spends her day working, fetching groceries, cleaning her house, doing the laundry, visiting her elderly mother, and picking up and dropping off the kids from and to school and kids clubs. She also feels that she has to say yes to any pleas for help from friends and family and struggles to say no.

When Jane tells me about her typical day she blurts it all out and then bursts into tears. “I’m overwhelmed. Tired of this hamster wheel and don’t know how to get off.” Jane feels that she has to be all to everyone; she can’t say no to ‘being there’ for everyone and needs to fix everyone’s problems for them. As a result, Jane finds herself rushing from one thing to another, never taking the time for herself or doing a ‘check-in’ with how she’s feeling. All that she knows is that she is tired, overwhelmed and stressed.

There’s a reason why women like Jane struggle to say no and usually, that reason is fear. They fear that they won’t be liked or loved if they say no. They fear that people will judge them for being unlikeable/boring/nasty. They are people pleasers so therefore to dis-please people would mean disaster for them.

When we believe that other people perceive us, or we perceive ourselves as not enough then this thought sends a stress signal to our body. When we are doing too much and become stressed then this same fight or flight response is triggered. When we are constantly seeking approval then or feeling unloved, again, this is a stressor.

Cortisol – is it just the ‘stress’ hormone?

Cortisol can be useful:

  • It helps the body to suppress inflammation. However, if there is too much cortisol then this can increase inflammation.

  • It activates us first thing in the morning (when we need it the most).

  • It helps to regulate blood pressure. Again, too much causes our blood pressure to increase and too little can cause low blood pressure.

  • Cortisol balances out another hormone called insulin which helps us to regulate blood sugar. Think of a see-saw effect; higher cortisol releases glucose into our blood which causes insulin to decrease. Too much cortisol raises blood pressure and if it is consistently raised then this can lead to type 2 diabetes.

As we can see, cortisol is useful but too much of this hormone over a long period of time can be detrimental to us.

Cortisol and stress

Let’s look at what happens in the body and brain for us when we feel fear, stress, or threat. The amygdala is what we call the emotional centre of the brain. When we feel stressed the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus in our brain is responsible for maintaining homeostasis. We might call it the control centre. This means that it is on the lookout for hunger, temperature regulation and safety. When there is an alert to threat (i.e stress!) the hypothalamus signals to the sympathetic nervous system to release adrenalin. Adrenalin speeds up the heart rate and breathing. If the threat or stress continues then a signal to the adrenals releases cortisol.

Going between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system

This cascade of hormonal signalling results in the fight or flight response and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. We usually go between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) each day. Our PNS is our ‘rest and digest’ soothing system. This going back and forth between the SNS and PNS might look something like this: We wake up, maybe we fuss the dog and we are in a calm rested state (PNS) then we might be on our way to work and a car swerves into our lane and we enter the SNS. This means that we might feel our heart speed up, our hands shake on the steering wheel, our mouth goes dry and our legs feel shaky. We get to work shaken, speak to our colleagues who sympathise and soothe us and we enter back into the PNS.

External stressors as well as internal stressors

The problem is that the stressors to our body do not have to come in the form of a predator (which was what the system was designed for!) but in the form of constant emails, demands on our attention, too much caffeine, too little food, too much exercise and yes…the fear that saying no to people will result in our rejection from the ‘tribe’. When we are constantly stuck in our sympathetic nervous system (or fight or flight) then this begins to take its toll on our bodies and minds.

Added to this too much cortisol can make it hard to shift the weight around our middle. The reason for this is that cortisol triggers cravings for carbs in order to get that quick energy boost that we need if we are in a fight or flight. Simple carbs or sugars will spike our insulin levels which leads us to seek out more sugary snacks and the cycle continues.

How can we balance our cortisol?

  • Sleep is crucial for our stressed bodies and minds. This is when the physical healing work is done. If our sleep is disrupted due to stress, then it is likely that we will have further cortisol release during the day and the cycle continues.

  • Sunlight for 20 minutes first thing in the morning sends another cascade of hormones through the body signalling to the brain. Exposure to sunlight increases the brain's release of serotonin which is associated with boosting our mood. Sunlight also plays a part in balancing out the hormone melatonin in conjunction with our natural circadian rhythm which helps induce sleep at the correct time.

  • Unwind an hour before bedtime by reading, taking a bath, and turning off screens. If you can manage 10-15 minutes of gentle bedtime this can help us to calm down by turning on the PNS. If all else fails then even laying with your legs against a wall, can have a very calming effect on our nervous systems!

  • Legs up the wall pose. Place your sit bones against the wall whilst laying on your back and place your legs straight against the wall and pointing upwards to the ceiling. Do this for anything up to twenty minutes to reduce anxiety and feel more rested.

  • Breathwork. Just 10 minutes of slow breathing in and out while laying on your bed sends the signal to the parasympathetic nervous system that it is safe and calm. You might even breathe in and say in your mind the word ‘safe’ or ‘peace’ and breathe out saying the word ‘calm’.

  • Limit alcohol and caffeine use. Lowering caffeine or even cutting it out altogether would also have a benefit on stress hormones. Caffeine is a stressor on the body since it raises cortisol. If you are already feeling stressed and overwhelmed, then the added caffeine will not be helping. Green tea is a good replacement as it has been that the polyphenolic compounds in green tea can inhibit cortisol-producing enzymes.

  • Healthy eating and exercise have an enormous effect on our stress hormones. Taking the time to feed yourself well and taking lunch breaks all signal to ourselves that we matter. An anti-inflammatory diet is beneficial in reducing cortisol. The Mediterranean diet can be said to have such foods.

Foods that help with stress Citrus fruit, kiwi and red peppers are all high in vitamin C which can help us to stabilise cortisol levels.

  • Omega 3 which is found in salmon, walnuts, and eggs is a powerful anti-inflammatory and can help reduce excess inflammation and cortisol.

  • Turmeric is another anti-inflammatory and has been found to be beneficial in relieving pain.

  • Foods that are high in B12: eggs, chicken, nutritional yeast.

  • Magnesium has been found to metabolise cortisol. When we are stressed, we excrete magnesium in our urine and this can lead to a loss of magnesium. Foods rich in magnesium include seeds, broccoli, dark chocolate, and avocado.

  • Foods that help regulate blood sugar are protein-rich foods like beans and legumes.

Journaling Journaling can help you to figure out why you feel the need to say yes to everything and how to put your needs higher on the to-do list. It can also help us to raise our awareness about what we are thinking and believing about ourselves. For instance, is there a need to do more for others to win their approval, love and attention? Why do we need to be liked by everyone and is this even possible? Are we good enough just as we are? How do we need others to see us and why? These are a few of the questions that you could begin to ask yourself.

Learn to say NO! When I say ‘learn’ I mean with the understanding that saying no is a learning process for everyone involved. When we say that we are unable to do something for someone (and we don’t always need to give reasons, we are allowed to just say no!) then we might feel uncomfortable or guilty somehow but this is simply because we aren’t used to saying no to people.

It feels more familiar to us to say yes, even when we are already rushed off our feet. So to go against what is familiar to us feels wrong or uncomfortable. Just know that sitting with these uncomfortable feelings is part of the process.

When you are able to say no to people this opens up more freedom and space for yourself. When we say no, alongside adopting the self-care techniques mentioned, then we can begin to lower cortisol which will result in us feeling less stressed.

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