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It’s all in your head. Or at least that is what we are told when things seem off, we aren’t living at our best, when we feel tired and have zero desire to turn it on with our partner. To some degree, it actually is all in our head because that is where the body gets all its communication signals. More to the point, it’s where the “flight or fight” signal starts that gets our cortisol elevated to deal with the stress event right in front of us. But what happens when the stress events aren’t as clear and we feel like we are always “on”? What happens if we want to live in more balance, less stress but we can’t seem to “think” our way there?
As well intentioned as so many “positive thinking” literature or seminars may be, it’s not just your thoughts that control your mood, your strength, or your levels of happiness. It’s hormones.
It’s Not All In Your Head, So To Speak
Our brain does a lot to keep us alive and is even where the mechanisms that trigger cortisol reside. But cortisol is a global hormone – global being inside the whole body, not just the brain. Responding to a message from one part of your brain, cortisol actually revs up in your adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys and, then, it kicks up your heartbeat to get blood going to wherever the brain thinks it’s needed to deal with the perceived emergency.
If your cortisol, and, subsequently, the rest of your hormones aren’t operating at their best, then your mind doesn’t have a chance. Retired ultra-endurance athlete Christopher Bergland writes: “Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight,”
Psychology Today. Change your mind all you want, but your hormones may determine how much change is possible.
Stressors Aren’t Always “Out There”
We may not be running from a predator or having to fight for our lives in the ways our prehistoric ancestors did but our brain still responds in the same way. There are moments in our less caveman-like world that require the same mechanism – let’s be honest, it’s usually traffic related. But it doesn’t have to be a physical threat to trigger your cortisol. We can set off our stress response system just by our thoughts - it could be something that stresses us out, or causes us to feel threatened and out-of-control. It can be as benign as giving a presentation, the anticipation of social interactions, going to the dentist, or, as a parent, anything to do with your kids. Your stress response can even be triggered by reliving old stressful experiences.
What does all this mean for your brain? According to this study on “How Stress Affects The Brain”: “When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.”
Cortisol Was Never Meant To Be Star Of The Show
Cortisol is a great thing when you need it. And it was never meant to hang around too long in large quantities. Otherwise, your body can’t get back to doing all the other things that go with living a good life. Too much blood sugar for too long leads to diabetes. Too much rapid breathing and increased heart beat for too long wears out your cardiovascular system sooner than later. (Imagine driving your car in the redline zone every time you get in it…even if it is just to the grocery store. The engine will burn up quickly). And this perpetual high cortisol state also tells your body to keep the sex drive turned off…because sex doesn’t factor in as a necessary survival function in “fight or flight” mod – when you are “running for your life” your body doesn’t have time for sex.
As we’ve talked about elsewhere, stress is a key factor to insomnia. Most of us know this at some level – you don’t sleep because you are stressed about a work meeting, your marriage, how your kid seems to be acting out and you can’t figure out how to help them, or how you are going to make ends meet this week, this month, this year. But it’s not as general as “stress = insomnia”. If that were the case then being wealthy and having no kids would mean perfect sleep every night.
Stress’s influence on sleep is cortisol related. It’s not the kid, the bank account, the car, or the bills keeping you awake at night. It’s how your body manages cortisol that is created from mulling all those things over, all the time, that keeps the fires burning all night long. “Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption is a common feature in many psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, play a key modulatory role in sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can therefore interfere with our sleep. The restoration of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms may therefore provide a treatment approach for these conditions.” (The Conversation).
That last sentence is the key – restoring sleep patterns and circadian rhythms as a means of helping reduce depression, anxiety, and other mental health impacts of sleep deprivation. The Rebalance Stress Management System™ is designed to integrate with the circadian rhythm to actually work with the body to reduce cortisol, and help bring positive repair to your body.
Cortisol May Be Keeping Your Brain From Therapy
Does going to a therapist give you the balanced mind we are talking about? It depends. A good therapist can give you tools to healthily engage stress, reduce the effects of triggers, and maybe even teach you some helpful techniques to increase a sense of a balanced mind. Even the best therapist, though, can’t be as effective on a brain operating under perpetually high cortisol as they might be in other areas. Evidence suggests that those suffering from depression paired with high circulating cortisol don’t seem to have the necessary cognitive functions to be receptive to behavioral therapy.
In short, the brain isn’t able to “take in” the new paradigms and helpful information that a therapist is offering because the elevated cortisol has made it nearly impossible to receive new information. By no means is this saying all depression is a result of high cortisol and if you fix the cortisol you won’t need your therapist, or the depression will go away. But the cortisol could be getting in the way of your brains’ ability to get better.
Practices to Help Balance Your Cortisol and Your Mind
It’s not all doom and gloom for the hyper-stressed. Your brain is not on a one-way track to diminishment. There are practices you can take to “change your mind” that have little to do with actual thinking.
Shake Your Groove Thing
Movement can make a big difference. If you get regular exercise you can decrease cortisol…and this can make room in your brain for not just the chemical benefits of exercise but a sense of endurance. This gives you the ability to do the hard thing without being taken out by whatever the stress comes with it. Exercise increases the production of new brain cells, kicks up an anti-inflammatory response which is what you want when all those parts of the brain are inflamed from stress hormones.
Breathing. Yes, breathing. But are you doing it right? (Don’t let that be another anxiety trigger) Right now, reading this article, what’s your breath doing? How deep is it? How fast or slow? Most people don’t breath the way the body was meant to. Shallow, rapid breathing is actually a negative vital sign when being assessed by a first-responder or doctor.
Make good on the Physiological Sigh. Inhale deep, and then sneak in another inhale breath. Follow it with a long exhale. “Just one, two, or three of these Physiological sighs brings your level of stress down very, very fast.”, notes Andrew Huberman.
Being around other people, and being present to those you are around can get you out of your head. The 12-step program has a built-in mechanism for helping others because they know the self-destructive nature of an addict is perpetuated by self-centered thinking and living. It’s good to be reminded we aren’t the only ones living through the ups and downs of life. You know the feeling when you are around friends and even if you didn’t verbally say what you are stressed about you find yourself heading home thinking, “Boy! I needed that!” It is a reduction and release. Reduced stress, released tension.
It doesn’t take a genius to know there are numerous benefits to taking care of your mental space. Creating a more receptive, positive environment for your head space keeps you thriving today, and has long term benefits as you grow older. Stress gets in the way of a balanced mind, sometimes with debilitating results. There are literal, active changes that occur in your body and mind when cortisol is running your show. Helping keep cortisol in balance is how you get it to work for, not against, your mental health and live with a balanced mind.