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Getting rid of Stress Build-up: Cortisol Explained

In my previous article I explained how not all stress is bad for you. When experiencing short-term stress, our adrenaline levels go up, we become more alert, more blood flows to our muscles, our cognition races like Usain Bolt. We could take on the world. But as soon as we move into the domain of long(er)-term stress, all these advantages are turned into disadvantages. Instead of high energy we are exhausted. We aren’t alert, we are tired. Our cognition is slowing down, we have no energy to exercise and a lot of physical complaints such as digestion and sleep issues may start manifesting. So what’s happening there?

Adrenaline vs. Cortisol Just like adrenaline, cortisol is a stress hormone. Just like adrenaline, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands when we experience stress. Unlike adrenaline, cortisol is not focused on the short-term. Cortisol makes it possible to stay alert and high-functioning for a longer period of time. As such, we are able to deal with a longer period of stress. For some time, you will be able to function above your normal capacity. But how long are you able to function at 120%?

Cortisol Build-Up A good example of cortisol production is an athlete getting ready. Cortisol is produced, its levels are increased, the body becomes ready, more alert, muscles receive more blood, heart rate increases and the athletic performance is at its best. After the athletic event, say a short sprint, the levels of cortisol decrease again to normal level. This type of stress is rather short-term, but longer-term than that of adrenaline, and is still healthy.

Not every single one of us is an athlete, I know I am certainly not. Does that make cortisol bad? Not necessarily. When it comes to pushing our own capabilities to make (almost) impossible deadlines at work, the body goes into stress and survival mode as well. Moving out of the domain of work, longer periods of strain on a relationship, whether it’s with your spouse, parent, child, best friend or boss can also cause and maintain longer cortisol build up, that allows us to move on and perform well (enough) in our day-to-day lives.

Cortisol becomes unhealthy as cortisol production does not decrease back to normal levels, or the stressful period does not find a closing end. As a result, there is no release. The body has to continue performing under strain. The 120% level of functioning is not maintainable for longer periods of time, and as such processes not necessary for surviving (the stressful situation) start shutting down.

Longer periods of cortisol production without release have been dubbed chronic stress. And that comes with a whole load of issues. The list of some of the possible complaints that you can experience when under a longer duration of increased levels of cortisol are: sleep dysfunction, exhaustion, digestive (intestinal) issues, obesity, muscle atrophy, decrease in brain volume, sped up aging, depression and an overall reduced immune system. Not to mention the effects chronic stress can have on the #nextgen when pregnant.

Not a nice list. I'd rather not experience any of those. So what can we do to escape chronic stress, or hopefully, prevent it?

Decreasing Cortisol The best way to deal with stress and increased levels of cortisol is to find what exactly is causing your stress. Is it an increased workload? Talk to your team, manager, supervisor etc. Figure it out together, but do not just “suck it up.” You are allowed to communicate what is and what is not working for you. I went months without telling my supervisors that the style of meetings and discussions we were having was not working out for me. As such the research started lagging behind, I became massively demotivated and, in the end, so frustrated that I ended up crying during on of our meetings because I just felt completely lost (I get emotional when frustrated). No one wants to be the one crying in the office. So maybe start a conversation before you hit that point.

Even if it’s not your work but a relationship, toxic or not, talk. Communicate with your friend/partner, parent etc. what is bothering you, and also how you’d like to deal with it. Most of the time having it off your chest helps a lot.

Another major stressor can be finances. Having too much month left at the end of your money can cause sleepless night quite easily, especially if you are also responsible for others, and have no safety net in place. Finances are a tricky game, where a trained eye can help a lot with spotting the issues, cutting out the crap and smoothing things over. My recommendation? Professional help from a personal finance advisor. They know what’s up.

A less psychological and more physiological approach to dealing with cortisol is staying healthy: exercise and nutrition. Now, when stressed out, the couch and the McDonalds look much more attractive than homemade quinoa-based salads and one hour on the elliptical. But this quickly becomes a vicious cycle. Watch this excellent YouTube clip on how one continued bad decision can just keep spilling over, and ruin your life.

Another tip is to stay social. We are social animals and being with others often increases our levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle neurotransmitter” which helps combat stress and depression. Given that when experiencing chronic stress, we don’t want to be social or exercise, why not combine the two to take off the mental load of having to do two separate things? Have a dinner club, have a running buddy, a badminton partner, someone that you take long walks with every Tuesday (I’m looking at you mom). Whatever it is, make it social, make it healthy. And stick with it. Rome wasn’t build in one day either.

In general, get back into what you love. When stressed, we tend to focus so much on our stressor that we don’t do anything else. But before there was stress, there was life. What did you used to do? What did you really enjoy doing? Take out some time to do it again, take it back up again. Initially you will feel guilty about “slacking off” and just enjoying yourself. But honestly, this is crucial to life.

Even all the above combined might not help. Chronic stress is a very prominent and pervasive issue. When you feel completely unable to define your stressor(s), and feel completely hopeless, just like with your finances: seek professional help. Do not feel ashamed, do not be embarrassed. Act before you’re even deeper into the vicious cycle. You owe it to yourself.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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