Too Much Cortisol? The Scary Stress Hormone and How to Decrease it

May 15th, 2015 by

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or remember a close call when driving on a busy highway, then you’re familiar with the effects of the stress hormone cortisol flooding the body. It’s a horrible feeling! But cortisol isn’t concerned with how you feel. It’s concerned with your survival. Your body is an incredible organism with a brain that functions to protect the body against perceived threats. This could be an oncoming car or a recurrent negative thinking pattern. The primitive part of the brain that scans every moment of your experience for potential threats – the amygdala – has a “hair trigger” and would rather be safe than sorry. So, when the Amygdala gets even a fuzzy sense of a threat —whether “real” or perceived—it instantly activates the autonomic nervous system producing a cascade of stress hormones and a host of physical changes in the body to allow you to either fight off or escape from a predator – commonly referred to as the Fight – Flight response.

This phenomenon is obviously essential for your survival in the face of immediate physical dangers (that near miss on the highway requires immediate evasive action), but it can become a huge problem when the perceived “threat’ is actually chronic stress, which may include automatic reactive and negative thinking patterns that originate within your own mind. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference!

Repeated activation of the Fight-Flight response, even for “threats” that come in the form of thoughts and emotions, like excessive worry, anger, and rumination, means long-term exposure to cortisol. Such exposure has been linked to everything from hypertension, cancer, infertility, high blood sugar, aggression, and more. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain and exhausts the adrenal glands, which brings a whole host of ailments including insomnia and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol suppresses happy hormones like serotonin, leading to depression.

And it gets worse! Cortisol also effectively turns off the body’s innate repair mechanisms – anything not needed for immediate survival. Think immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. Cortisol ramps down the functioning of these systems and ramps up those needed to deal with the stressor: especially the cardiovascular and adrenal systems. You can see how long term exposure to cortisol is not a healthy way to live.

How can we rebalance this mind-body system? As Dr. Lissa Rankin points out in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself your body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight infections, slow aging, and boost immunity. But these mechanisms cannot operate while the nervous system is stuck in “Fight-Flight”. What’s needed are ways to engage and strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system: the part that soothes and calms the amygdala.

There are many simple mind-body practices that activate the soothing parasympathetic nervous system: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, aromatherapy, and physical exercise. To keep yourself in balance, and protected from the damaging effects of cortisol, you must carve out time for self-care, and practice regularly. These practices are protective and healing and have no side effects!

Years ago, before I discovered meditation and yoga, I lived in a chronic state of Fight-Flight and cortisol saturation. I had the chronic pain, weakened immune system, and regular panic attacks to show for it. Now, having practiced and taught meditation for several years, I was recently invited to participate in a university study that examined the cortisol levels of meditation teachers. To my delight, I learned that my levels of cortisol were significantly lower than the average. I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice is responsible for that. Take care of your body-mind. If you don’t, who will?

Mind-Body Practices for Reducing Cortisol

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Chair Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong

Training a More Laid-Back Brain

September 22nd, 2012 by

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn’t involve chanting “Om” while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, “without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Read more of this article by Meryl Davids Landau for U. S. News & World Report.

How to Forgive When You Don’t Really Want To

June 30th, 2012 by

“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” ~Jean Paul Sartre

Does this article by Kate Swoboda speak to you? She shares this discovery: when you decide to forgive, you get to decide who you are.

Image: crismatos

How to Work with Sadness

March 28th, 2012 by

Sadness, grief, despair, and fear are probably some of the most difficult emotions to work with in meditation practice. We avoid feeling them, which can cause them to be entrenched – forever trying to work themselves out through repetitive behavior patterns in our life, or expressing themselves through bodily symptoms. Not good.  I found a very thorough and, I believe, wise method for learning from, and transmuting, these difficult emotions in this article by author and psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan. I realized that the process she describes parallels my own path of working with sadness. Please let me know your thoughts. Are you dealing with strong emotions?

Mindfulness : A Foundation for Personal Transformation

February 13th, 2012 by

More and more people want to know about mindfulness as the scientific evidence for its benefits grows stronger. Mindfulness is a process of bringing attention to moment-by-moment experience. It’s a combination of “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance toward one’s experiences.” Through a regular mindfulness meditation practice, the mind gradually becomes quiet and shifts away from the thinking process into a state of restful awareness. Over time you can begin to shift from “automatic pilot” to present moment awareness during whatever you may be doing or experiencing. Mindfulness during your daily activities leads to an expanded perspective and understanding of oneself. As you practice, you’ll begin to observe thoughts and feelings with the same quality you observe any sensory experience, without habitually reacting to them, as many of us do. As we know, most of us spend our lives not present and habitually reactive! This is important because the mind tends to take on the qualities of the things we (habitually) pay attention to. One of my teachers describes this phenomenon by saying, “we are always practicing something,” and “whatever we practice we get good at.” For example, if we habitually rehash things that make us angry, we unconsciously get very good at being angry and unhappy. If we unconsciously pay attention and react to worrisome thoughts, we become very, very good worriers.  However, if we intentionally cultivate the quality of patience (as we do toward the fluctuating nature of our own mind in mindfulness practice) we get good at being patient with ourselves and others. If we practice cultivating qualities of non-judgment and kindness (especially toward ourselves) we become kind and less judgmental. By learning and practicing being “present” in the  “moment” (rather than on “automatic pilot”) we can wisely influence what unfolds in this moment, and the next, and thus the rest of our lives.  This is a foundation for transformation and the development of our human potential.

In prior posts I’ve highlighted some of the numerous health and quality of life benefits associated with having a personal mindfulness practice: less stress, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, benefits for people with high blood pressure, chronic pain, diabetes, fibromyalgia, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and depression. But mindfulness doesn’t stop there. Regular practice can also propel the practitioner on a journey of personal growth and transformation. In my work with people who come to study mindfulness to reduce stress, as well as in my own life, I’ve seen how a difficult life situation, even what some might call a physical or emotional “breakdown”, typically signals a transformation – the emergence of something new.  For example, several years ago my own cancer, insomnia, unhealthy weight loss, chronic pain, anxiety and depression signaled the serious need for change in my life. There were things I needed to pay attention to, feel, and release to make room for the new me that was emerging. It was only through a regular meditation practice that I came to understand the underlying origins of my physical and emotional stress. It was a time for undeniable truth with myself. This was a difficult but healing process. By practicing being open to my inner turmoil with compassion, without judging it as good or bad, but simply the truth that was emerging through me at the time, and allowing that pain to be fully felt, I discovered I already had everything I needed – inside –  to face the scary monster within. The anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic pain were telling me to look within and to pay attention. The emotions at the root of these symptoms were demanding to be known and felt. Only then did these symptoms and emotions stop running my life. In their place came spaciousness and the possibility for something new to enter. This is transformation and it’s available to you too!  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a course in which you’ll learn how to practice mindfulness skills and make them a natural part of your life. You’ll begin to respond rather than react to the difficulties of life. This new way of being opens you to the possibility of transformation. Attend the Free MBSR Talk on Wednesday, March 7th at 10 am at the Naples Daily News on Immokalee Road. Also visit www.IntegrativeMindfulness.net.  I look forward to meeting you and practicing mindfulness together!

References

Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research, AHRQ publication No. 07-E010, June, 2007 prepared by the University of Alberta Evidence-Based Practice Center for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meditation: The Royal Road to the Transpersonal, Roger Walsh, MD, PhD and Frances Vaughan, PhD, eds. in Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision,  Penguin, 1993 pp. 47-55.

How to Work with Fear

January 24th, 2012 by

Many of us experience fear and anxiety on occasion. In this article, author Jerome Stone gives some useful information and some simple tips on how to work with fear when it arises.

 

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