Running On Cortisol

When stress takes its toll, you'll be thankful you read this.

4 min read

Stress is something we all experience, and indeed the theory of ‘Eustress’ suggests a bit of stress is vital to help drive us get things done, to perform and generally knock it out of the park with a big project.

But here’s the thing and I want you all to take heed — continued periods of stress damage your body. Not just in a ‘oh gosh I had a stressful week’ way, but in an actual physical way. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what is happening in your brain can affect your physical body — but it does.

Most of you have the science of this floating around in your memories somewhere. It’s the ‘fight or flight’ response: we’ve all heard of it. You get stressed and your body prepares for war, or running away by releasing Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine.

Then perhaps after a long day you switch off your computer and go home for the evening, still worrying about this big project. That adrenaline is still coursing around your body and it is not doing you any good. It’s inhibiting other systems of digestion, growth, reproduction and the immune system. As far as those hormones know there’s still a bear chasing you. They are only worried about getting you ready to run — not to digest you food properly or deal with your cold. In this way stress hormones can damage your immune system and lead to digestive problems, not to mention overworking your heart.

SO WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO? YOU NEED TO LOOK AFTER YOURSELF, MY FRIEND.

1. FOOD

You may be tempted to order a massive pizza when you’ve had a tough day. Diet is key to reducing anxiety: eat a whole-foods, plant-based diet with meat and seafood, plenty of leafy greens (such as kale) to get a wide variety of nutrients to help reduce anxiety. Foods like eggs and chicken are great as they are a satiating and filling protein, and are nature’s top source of choline. Low levels of choline are associated with increased anxiety, so good to be topped up!

2. FIND YOUR FLOW

Flow is a state when you become absorbed in an activity you enjoy. A person who is completely involved in an activity, whether it be chess, rock climbing, dancing finds that they completely zone out the world around them. This can help you relax, and make you happy! (If this flow activity is exercise, all the better…)

3. EXERCISE

Stress lit a fire inside you, exercise helps utilize that energy and disperse the adrenaline. Otherwise those hormones just have nowhere to go. Exercise uses up that adrenaline and harmful hormones, as well as releasing serotonin and endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killers and mood elevators.

4. BREATHE DEEPLY + MEDITATE

Diaphragmatic breathing calms the nerves down, many of whom are still rushing around in fight/flight mode. By practicing meditation and mindful breathing, you can reduce stress levels, increase productivity and boost your mood.

Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on a pillow or lying on the ground. In fact, you can do the following exercises indoors or outdoors, at work or in your car, with a free hour or a free minute.

Sit comfortably and raise your ribcage to expand your chest. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy, take note of how you upper chest and tummy move while you breathe. Concentrate on your breath and try to gently and slowly breathe in and out through your nose. With each breath, try to let any tension you feel slip away. Shallow breathing is art of the typical stress response; the stress response can be reduced by consciously breathing using the diagram.

5. HEAT UP

Heating up your body reduces muscle tension and anxiety. Warming up may be one of the ways that exercise — not to mention curling up by a fire with a cup of tea — boosts mood. We often associate feeling warm with a sense of relaxation and well-being.

6. CONNECT WITH YOUR SUPPORT NETWORK

Unleashing your deepest worries, angers and fears to your friends can be extremely cathartic. People around us who care can help us relieve stress (a good moan, a game of football, karaoke: you get the idea!) and help us cope with a sense of security and belonging.

So go for a run, eat some good food and go sit a Jacuzzi with your buddies. I feel more relaxed already… I know these things may sound like luxuries but looking after your health and taking time to relax are very important.

Here are some ideas using the tips above:

  • Form a ‘fit supper club’ with some friends: go for a run or hike together before heading back to someone’s house to prepare a healthy dinner. You’re more likely to stick to healthy habits if you do them together.
  • Take a cup of hot tea into the bath and get lost in a good book.
  • Find a hobby that helps you relax and brings you joy — knitting, baking, bowling, climbing, wood carving — anything!

Sarah Robinson is a Digital Marketing Director and Events Producer with an MSc in Psychology & Neuroscience. She is also a yoga teacher and is passionate about making mental and physical wellbeing accessible for all. She particularly enjoys teaching meditation and yoga at tech conferences, helping developers and designers find new ways to unwind and relax. She hopes to help everyone discover ways to feel better through her blog posts with SheCanCode.