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

Saying Goodbye

July 23rd, 2012 by

I’ll be sending my only child, my son Jordan, off to college in a few weeks. The moment I’ve dreaded since he was born will soon be upon me. I don’t know what the actual moment of “Good-bye” will be like. At orientation the college advisors instructed us parents not to “break down” or “lose it”, as this will only make the child worried about us, and will take away from the fun experience of starting off in college. Hmmm. I will certainly try. But it may be like trying to stop a tidal wave. Last night and today, and maybe a few other days in recent months, I’ve felt waves of emotion. Today, as I sat during my morning meditation practice – “being” in the present moment – feeling myself “in” my body, noticing the sound of the raindrops outside the window, I recalled a letter I had received from my aunt when Jordan was probably 8 or 9 years old. She had never met Jordan and asked me about him in the letter. “How does he grow?” she asked. Those words “How does he grow?” seemed so expansive and open to the experience of watching a boy travel through his childhood, and change, and express his uniqueness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a moment, such as the one I’ll face in a few weeks, brings so much together – all those experiences and frustrations and laughter, arguments, excitement at Christmas, anger, talks, talks that should have been but weren’t, worry, mistakes (mine), hugs, broken hearts, messy rooms – they add up to what this whole experience was. It all begins to come into a kind of stark and pregnant focus as the day of release approaches. Sort of like how you procrastinate when you’re planning to go on a trip, and then, suddenly, the day to leave on your trip is here, and all the things that you’ve been thinking about in your head that need to be done are either done, or they aren’t. The day has arrived.

All the experiences that add up to a childhood – You don’t always experience how special they are until you realize that the time has come for that period of life to end, and a new period of life to begin. Was I present enough? What about the times I got ridiculously angry and childish? Did I show him enough love? Did I listen enough? Was I a good teacher, a good parent? Did I cherish the times with my boy as he grew? Did I cherish them as deeply as I’m grieving the end of my day-to-day connection with him now?

I think of how he is a wonderful, loving, and kind human being – ready to start out on his own adventure of life, to have his own triumphs and make his own mistakes, to learn to work with his own strong emotions, just like I am now. I know “Good-bye” will be tough for him too. I’ve already seen waves of emotion moving through him at times, and we’ve shared long bear hugs seemingly out of the blue lately. I remember my own experience of being alone and away from home for the first time – those pangs of loneliness and fear.

I’ve been recalling guidance I received from my teachers, and which I share with my own meditation students – “turn toward” the emotion, not away.” “Emotions want to be felt.” Practice saying “It’s OK, let me feel it.”  As I sat on my meditation cushion this morning I remembered my aunt’s words, “How does he grow?” I felt something physical spread through my body, as if moving through and inhabiting every cell. “It’s OK. Let me feel it.” I recalled a friend of mine sharing the experience of her own daughter’s departure from home. It brought tears to her eyes as she spoke, some twelve years later. I thought of another friend whose son, just a young man not yet twenty, recently died. What must it be like for her? How does she handle the grief?

As I sat with my eyes closed, I could feel tears rolling down each cheek. I felt them move along the jaw and join together at my chin. I felt the cells of my body warm with sadness. It’s here, I thought. Sadness is here. It’s part of my human experience at this moment. I held this experience in full awareness and breathed some space for it to be. Nestled within me. Cared for. Safe. Beautiful and poignant. Part of this amazingly rich and varied experience of being alive. How “will” he grow? How will I grow? The adventure and the experience continue to unfold.

Image: © tia_maria (used with permission)

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

Barney and Me or The Power of Emotions

April 7th, 2012 by

This Saturday morning my husband and I were sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather. I had wrapped myself in a quilt as it was a little chilly, and my dog, Peanut, was snuggled up close in my lap.  As my husband read the paper, he read aloud to me the Ask the Veterinarian column. Someone had written recounting the last months of their beloved cat’s life during which they and their veterinarian had attempted to save the cat through multiple trips to the vet and a series of treatments and injections.  All well meaning, but the truth of the matter was it was time for the cat to die. The writer regretted all she had put her cat through trying to extend her life, and lamented the lack of palliative or hospice care for companion animals. Ultimately the owner was able to locate a veterinarian who agreed to euthanize the animal at home, in familiar, comfortable surroundings, in the arms of the person who had loved her all her life.

I looked at my sweet dog in my lap, his wagging tail, his graying muzzle, his kind and devoted eyes looking back at me. The moment gave me the gift of being able to plan for his passing. I vowed that when the time comes, he won’t be euthanized in a vet’s office, a place that terrifies him. I’ll inquire now, and make sure he’ll be in his home, where he plays, and sleeps, and romps, and explores every day, as he’s done his entire life. This is how this sacred and tender process of death should be experienced if possible.

But this story isn’t about my dog. It’s about a wonderful blue-eyed and very talkative Siamese cat named Barney. Barney was my fast friend for a long time. He lived and traveled with me during my college and law school days, moving with me from apartment to apartment and town to town as I made my way through those early adult years. He was still with me with me when I fell in love and married. Barney was both a feisty and incredibly affectionate and loyal animal. I remember a period when he spent a great deal of time away from home, and I learned (to my horror) that he had been stalking the new baby chicks that had hatched at the farm next door. On more than one occasion he gifted me with the carcass of some poor squirrel, and once even stole a chicken breast out of a pot of boiling water on the stove! (my pre-vegetarian days).

In the mornings when he wanted breakfast, he would crawl under the covers, all the way to my ankles, and give me a gentle “bite” to wake me up. If I wasn’t prompt enough for his liking, his next “bite” would be just a bit more forceful, until he was successful in getting me up. He was quite jealous of my other cat and would tackle her every time he saw me petting her (even though she significantly outweighed him and could have easily put him in his place.) However, when he wasn’t up to these shenanigans, he was lying in my lap, or next to me in bed, purring LOUDLY, and staring DEEPLY into my eyes, “kneading” his paws just like a kitten. I recall thinking at those times “what will I ever do without you?”

When I was in law school, Barney suffered a serious bout of feline leukemia (this was before the vaccine) and came close to death.  He lost much of his fur and became too weak to stand and feed himself. Twice daily I would hold him in my lap and hand feed him bite size pieces of cooked liver. He eventually went into remission, his fur grew back, and he lived several more years.

I was already married and working when the leukemia returned. We made a bed for Barney in the bottom of a closet. My husband and I would take turns coming home from work at lunch to check on him. He began to cry out in pain, and x-rays revealed that he had tumors throughout his body. One night we knew we had to take him to the emergency vet. We didn’t yet have a cat carrier, so I put a blanket inside a large box and put him inside and placed it in the back seat of the car. For some reason, I felt it wise to place the lid on the box during the car ride. Barney looked up at me with his huge blue eyes. He was afraid.  I agonized over placing the lid on the box as we started out for the vet. I knew he was leaving me. Although I held him as the vet administered the final injection, I regret having taken him out of his home for this experience.

What amazes me now, more than twenty years later, is how real, deep, and tender my memories and emotions are still. When my husband read the letter from the newspaper this morning, and I recalled Barney, it was astounding to me how after so many years these deep emotions are still with me, needing to be felt, expressed, and remembered. Barney was with me during a wonderful and adventurous era of my life. He brought me tremendous joy, and was a huge comfort to me when I was lonely or sad. I loved him (and still do), and also loved that part of me who lived, and laughed, learned and discovered, made mistakes and wrong turns, doubted and was unsure. That part of me, of life, of Barney’s life, that made her way through those years. What a time it was!

 

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?

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