Though stress is often perceived as a mental phenomenon when our brains race and we feel overwhelmed and filled with worry, it has biological roots. When an individual experiences stress, it is in response to the brain releasing chemicals that trigger “stress hormones” that flow through our body.
The hypothalamus is a small area in the brain that reacts to stressors in our environment. It is responsible for signaling the pituitary gland that then alerts our adrenal glands to begin producing the hormone cortisol. This is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis. All three parts of the human body come together to respond to stress.
As chronic stress is linked to conditions such as hypertension, depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, it is essential to manage the feeling. When a person experiences stress their levels of cortisol begin to rise. Many ask the question of whether or not it is physically possible to reduce the amount of this hormone in their body. And if so, how.
The Role of Cortisol
Cortisol doesn’t only appear in times of stress. The hormone is an everyday necessity to keep our bodies going. Everyone has a resting cortisol level that works with their circadian rhythm. It helps regulate energy, letting our bodies know when it’s time for activity and when it’s time to enter rest mode. We need cortisol, which is a steroid hormone, to function throughout the day.
The roles of cortisol include regulating blood glucose levels, maintaining a proper metabolic rate, reducing inflammation, and aiding memory. It also plays a role in maintaining proper blood pressure, which is why those with chronic stress often have problems with hypertension.
Additionally, pregnant women need cortisol to support healthy fetal development. It’s a hormone that plays many roles throughout the body. But we need to be careful of how high it rises.
Reactive Cortisol Levels
Your reactive cortisol level refers to the amount of the hormone that your brain releases in times of stress. It’s much higher than your resting cortisol level and it sends your body into “panic” mode. When cortisol levels increase you may notice physical effects such as increased heart rate, sweating, or even an increase in energy. You may feel restless, have trouble sleeping, and experience other secondary symptoms of stress.
High cortisol levels can lead to irritability, chronic headaches, decreased sex drive, and stomach problems. It can cause weight gain, erectile dysfunction in men, and disruptions in ovulation for women.
As you can see, when the stress hormone cortisol rises too high for too long, we put our bodies at significant risk. But we live in a world that tends to be high-stress. We’re always connected, finding a work/life balance is challenging, and our schedules never seem to slow down. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), nearly 33% of adults in the United States report feelings of extreme chronic stress, while 48% of respondents state that their levels of stress increase as the years go by.
Quick Stats on Stress
If you’re feeling stressed a majority of the time, you’re not alone. The APA found that 75% of survey respondents cite work and money as the main cause of their stress and 50% of Americans state that stress negatively impacts both their personal and professional lives.
31% of adults state that managing a work/life balance is difficult and 35% report that their jobs cut into their personal and family time, causing them stress. 54% of Americans said that their stress levels contribute to arguments with loved ones.
It’s not just the relational disturbances of stress that matter. The same study found that more than three quarters of respondents state they experience the physical symptoms of stress; most within the last month alone. The most commonly cited symptoms include excessive fatigue, feelings of anger and irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and headaches.
Lowering Levels of Cortisol
With so much stress in our daily lives and the repercussions of having high cortisol levels, many wonder what they can do to manage the feeling and protect their health. There are proven ways to lower cortisol levels naturally.
Eating a balanced, healthy diet is one way to help balance cortisol levels. Try to consume as little refined sugar as possible and stick to foods that are high in soluble fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and foods that contain probiotics. Additionally, it’s essential to drink plenty of water.
Avoid Large Amounts of Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant that gets your body going. It can also negatively impact your sleep cycle. Sleep and stress go hand-in-hand. Poor sleep patterns can increase cortisol levels and lead to feelings of stress, yet stress can also cause problems with sleep. You must try to stick to a healthy sleep schedule and avoid consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or consuming it in the evening.
Play with Animals
It may sound silly, but science proves that individuals who regularly interact with animals have naturally lower levels of cortisol than those who don’t. One study shows that having a dog can help regulate the HPA axis reaction and that pet owners in general have lower levels of the stress hormone in their bodies.
Effectively Manage Levels of Stress
Again, this may sound challenging but the more effectively you manage stress the lower your reactive cortisol levels will be. It’s essential to find healthy coping mechanisms, productive outlets, and hobbies that you enjoy to manage stress.
Tips for managing stress:
- Learn to identify your stressors
- Use positive mantras and practice gratitude
- Use breathing techniques in stressful situations
- Participate in mini meditation sessions
- Make time for fun self-care activities
If Stress Is Getting the Best of You
If you’re experiencing chronic stress that is having an impact on your life, whether it be physically, emotionally, or both, it may be time to step back and evaluate your lifestyle.
Key questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I have a healthy work/life balance?
- Do I need more time for myself?
- Am I finding time to do the things I enjoy?
Addressing those questions is a GR8 place to start, but sometimes we all need a little help. If you begin to experience feelings of depression or generalized anxiety seek help from a professional counselor to develop a plan to reduce your stress levels and keep cortisol levels in-check.
When most people think about stress, they often relate it to an external event or person causing it. We know that things like workload, relationships, and unplanned events can all add to our stress levels. However, our negative thinking, ambitions, and inner judgment can also add to our stress levels, resulting in what we know as self-imposed stress.
What Is Self-Imposed Stress?
One could argue that events and people don’t cause stress. Instead, it’s our interpretation of the event and how we choose to process it that triggers stress. Under this concept, all stress is self-imposed, and we make a choice to allow these situations to cause stress.
The Dangers of Self-Imposed Stress
When we don’t recognize that stress can be self-imposed, we can fall into a negativity cycle that only makes our anxiety and pressure feel worse. Some of the dangers of self-imposed stress include:
- Having constant unhealthy thoughts
- Anxiety and fear triggers
- Risk of depression or panic attacks
- Risk of substance abuse
How to Fight Self-Imposed Stress
The first step to fighting self-imposed stress is to acknowledge its existence. You have to be honest with yourself, to the point that you can pinpoint when you’re adding unnecessary pressure to yourself. Once you’re able to do that, you can start taking meaningful steps to fight back and regain control of your serenity.
Recognize the Signs
You already know that stress affects your health and body in many ways. Recognizing signs of burnout is an easy way to notice when stress is taking over. Please pay attention to those moments of high stress and understand what’s causing them. Is it under your control, or are you focusing on the “what if”? Many times self-imposed pressure comes from worrying about things out of our control or that are in the future. Keep your warning signs in tune to make sure you know exactly when you’re doing more worrying than doing.
Prioritize Work-Life Balance
When you have a type-A personality or are overly ambitious, it’s easy to get caught up in self-imposed pressure to be the ultimate best. Beware of these personality traits, while our cultures often celebrate these behaviors, they can be quite self-disruptive in the end.
Take the time to analyze your work-life balance and draw healthy boundaries to help you maintain stress in your life. Prioritize things like meditation, self-care, and exercise to make sure that you’re nourishing your wellbeing no matter how long your to-do list is.
Tone Down Your Self-Talk
We all have one, and we all listen to it — our inner voice. Sometimes, our inner voice encourages us to keep going with positive affirmations. On occasions, our inner voice turns dark, and we start having negative self-talk conversations that keep fueling our stress levels.
Being an optimistic person about everything happening in the world, and your life right now might be too much of an ask. Instead, I invite you to become an optimistic realistic. If positive affirmations and bright rainbows don’t cut it for you, turn into a bit of a sarcastic person and acknowledge the reality of things. Having optimistic thinking can bring positive things into your life versus negative attracting bad things. Try it.
Accept Your Weaknesses
Feeding off that last advice, accepting your weaknesses will help you vanish your self-imposed stress. But, the reality is that when you stop putting pressure on yourself and give yourself a break, stress will slowly but steadily melt away.
Try to forgive yourself for past mistakes, incorporate loving-kindness meditation, find ways to turn your weaknesses into valuable assets. Out of every resource, this is the most significant to manage your stress levels.
Acknowledge Your Disorder
It’s important to note that perfectionism isn’t just a personality trait, it can be a disorder. When you consider yourself not to be enough to tackle your tasks or your daily activities, you are essentially self-sabotaging.
When you’re able to look at the different ways we self-impose stress, it will be easier to control. Remember that focusing on your mental health, wellbeing, and overall health is key to manage stress levels regardless of how uncertain things are around you. The power to keep stress at bay lies within you.
Cause of Death: Stress?
There are, of course, differing levels of stress. People respond differently to different stressful stimuli. Something that drives someone’s blood pressure through the roof may only be enough to make another person chuckle in disdain. It’s all relative.
The tendency for stress to become fatal is dependent on the circumstances that come as a result of the stress. The presence of prolonged or chronic stress affects the body physically. The nervous, cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and metabolic systems are all affected in cases such as these.
The Stress Domino Effect
It works something like a domino effect. One function of the body doesn’t execute correctly, and then the next, and the next. Before you know it, you’re deep in unexplained indigestion, night sweats, and developing chest pain. Stress comes in many forms, and it’s important to note if you are experiencing any of them as a result of feeling too stressed.
This is how stress can go from a few bad days, to chronic, and potentially fatal.
The End Game
The verdict is that yes, technically, you can die from the effects of stress. Stress can trigger a variety of health complications that can lead to fatality over time.
However, this is not to say that you will die from a single instance of being distressed. Though, if you present an existing risk of heart attack, and experience an abnormally high level of stress, it’s not impossible that being stressed could trigger a cardiovascular attack.
We want you to take care of you, so GR8 fam, if you’re experiencing high levels of stress—don’t just let it be. Seek guidance from a mental healthcare professional, and work to alleviate stress because even if it doesn’t kill you, it may still be taking away from your life.