Understanding your body’s stress response
Did you know that a natural hormone produced by your body to keep you safe can actually end up being bad for your health?
It’s the stress hormone cortisol. It’s part of your natural “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years. It is for emergencies only however, such as escaping an angry bull elephant or a hostile attacker.
The body’s stress response was meant to be triggered by life or death situations. In the modern world, it is often triggered by daily stressful social, economic, and work situations. In this case, the resulting constant surge of cortisol becomes unhealthy.
When the Amygdala (the fear center of the brain) starts the fight or flight response, Adrenaline raises heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol helpfully triggers the release of sugars to the body and brain for energy and other substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also shuts down body systems that are not helpful for responding to immediate danger. These include the immune system, digestion, reproductive, and growth process. The body is designed to limit this response and after the threat passes, hormone levels drop to normal, and other body systems resume.
But what if the anxiety is ongoing?
If anxiety is out of control and you constantly feel threatened, cortisol levels can stay elevated. Over time overexposure to cortisol can put you at risk for several health problems:
- Digestive problems such as IBS or Crones
- Headaches and migraines
- Heart disease
- Insomnia, and difficulty staying asleep
- Weight gain
- Difficulties with concentration and memory
The good news is that you can learn ways to shut down the fight or flight response and lower your cortisol levels.
- Self-care- remembering the things that make you feel calm and happy and making room for them in your life, daily.
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as breathwork or meditation
- Going outdoors and enjoying nature
- Increasing human connection
- Getting exercise
- Limiting social media and screen time
If your anxiety remains unmanageable even after making these life changes, it might be time to consult a mental health professional. Anxiety is a very treatable mental health issue. Anyone can learn how to manage the stress response and taking steps to control it could help you live a longer, healthier life.