Conquering Cortisol Overload with a Smile

By Brenda Jank

Note: This post is Post #5 of our original series on rest and restoration. We are reposting some of our favorite articles because we believe they’re just as important today as ever. We hope you’re challenged to think of rest in a fresh, new way and will invite others to join in.

Stress.

I hate that word. It rises up and slaps me in the face.

Hard.

It reminds me that I am not in control.

I long to face life with grace, grit, and determination. Unhindered. Free. But all too often, whether the world sees it or not, the stress of life lands me on my butt.

That’s OK. Stress is not actually the enemy. Cortisol is.

Cortisol is a hormone produced in our adrenal glands. Under normal circumstances our body regulates a daily cycle of cortisol. It pumps out the highest levels in the morning to prepare us for the day ahead. It hits a low as we get ready to sleep, preparing our bodies for the sweet land of slumber.

Cortisol is also known as a “stress hormone.” Our body releases an extra dose of cortisol when hard work (mental or physical) or a tension-filled situation arises (a fight or flight event). A short-term release of extra cortisol makes a positive impact on the body. It improves memory, reduces our sensitivity to pain, and increases energy and stamina. In quick, short doses cortisol is a knight in shining armor.

Prolonged over-exposure to cortisol – whether it’s a constant trickle or a relentless fire hose – is a dragon breathing down our back. The effects are toxic and daunting.

  • Cortisol damages our brain and does a number on our memory. It sets us up for Alzheimer’s.
  • It suppresses our immune system, making us vulnerable to both inconvenient and life-altering illnesses.
  • It causes us to gain weight. It increases ghrelin, the hormone that creates the feeling of hunger. It decreases leptin, the hormone that allows us to feel full after eating. Not a good combination.
  • It sets us up for diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.
  • It sabotages our sleep.
  • It damages the cells in our body and shortens our life span.

Where do you feel cortisol’s greatest effect? Extra pounds? Chronic fatigue? Lackluster joy? Restless nights? Too few working brain cells?

We all have a default setting when it comes to stress and the impact of cortisol overproduction.

  • Caffeine – we gulp it down in many ways
  • Carbs – we crave the temporary “brain boost” we get from our favorite snacks
  • Pills – we take all kinds for pain, sleep, blood pressure, depression, anxiety
  • Ruts – we cave into unhealthy routines and habits which provide a quick fix
  • Moods – we rant and rave, pout and complain

We all have our default setting – our personal set of unhealthy (and healthy) habits to deal with the barrage of daily strain and demands. Our unhealthy habits attempt to alleviate what ails us, but most are short-sighted, causing more pain and loss in the long run.

Stress is not our enemy. Stress is good, healthy, and necessary. The culprit is cortisol and our inability to recognize when there’s too much coursing through our veins. It is the masked bandit that robs us of more than we can imagine.

Truth
We cannot circumvent many of the stressors in our lives. (A magic wand right now would be really nice.) But we can minimize the damage of 24/7 cortisol. Two steps are required.

#1. What are the objective realities of too much cortisol in your body? 

  • Are you gaining unwanted weight or can’t take off what you’d like to lose?
  • Do you have trouble falling or staying asleep?
  • Are you a grouch? Impatient? Snarky? Or distant and disengaged?
  • Is your doctor concerned about your blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar?
  • Are you frequently ill or fighting an autoimmune disease?
  • Is joy a missing ingredient in the equation of life?

#2. Name it. Claim it. And face the enemy of Cortisol Overload.

Diminishing the cortisol overload in our body will diminish these ugly, objective realities. Is it the only answer? No, but it packs a powerful punch.

This post demands the making of a list. Lists are terrible. We read them, nod our head, and don’t do a darn thing. In an attempt to make this list gift-driven and not guilt-inducing I am categorizing these cortisol busting ideas into four different groups. I will share one group today. The options are not hard. Most are quite attractive. The other ideas will be posted in a few days. I’ve titled these lists: Tweak, Try, Train, Trek. Today we’ll stick with Tweak. These are surprising add-ons that have been scientifically proven to lower cortisol levels in our bodies. They are as easy as can be.

Tweak

  • Breathe. Americans are famous for shallow, anemic breathing. Just a few, slow, deep breaths trigger the vagus nerve – every time. This signals the nervous system to lower our heart rate, which in turn helps the body recover from an overdose of cortisol. Tape up some Breathe! sticky notes or set a timer on your cell phone. Bedtime and red lights are great places to practice. Experts tell us there’s an art to breathing well. Begin by exhaling out through your mouth. Then take a slow breath in through your nose – like you are smelling a flower. Don’t go too slow or too fast. Shoot for a count of 4. Then exhale through your mouth – like you are slowly blowing out a candle. Shoot for a count of 6. Try to use your abdominal muscles and if you’re sitting upright, don’t allow your shoulders to rise. Relax the muscles of your arms and shoulders. Five to ten will serve you well.
  • Hydrate. Mild dehydration adds to our fatigue and crankiness. Drink some water. Then a little bit more. Most Americans suffer from mild levels of dehydration every day. Don’t like to drink? Use a straw. A quick sip from a straw gets more in you then a sip from a cup.
  • Hold and hug. Wrap your arms around people you love. Every day. Human touch reduces cortisol levels. It’s life giving to premature babies and just about everyone else. Kissing and hand holding works, too. And do you have a furry pet? Cuddle away!
  • Linger outside. Meander to your car. Most Americans spend only 14 minutes outside every day, the short bursts we spend walking from a building to our car and back again. This cortisol reducer simply encourages us to pause and pay attention. Feel the breeze, the rain, the sunshine. Listen for birds. Notice the clouds, a splash of color, the dance of leaves or branches in the wind. Attend. Then take a moment to marvel. And if you see a rose . . . well, you know what to do.
  • Smile. Simply smile. (Laugh, too, every chance you get.) A smile reduces your heart rate even in stressful, multitasking situations. Go figure. So, shine those pearly whites at every person you meet. If they’re under five, add a wink free of charge. For an interesting read about smiling and cortisol, take a look at this Smithsonian article.
    • Thank the Lord. Every night. Three things. Be specific and relive the joy. A year of gratitude goes a long way. Begin tonight. Better yet, begin right now.

Have you ever tried changing your default setting?

Give it a try. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up.

Breathe. Drink. Hug. Attend. Smile. Say thank you.

Big steps in the right direction.

Did you like this post?
Visit the first blog post by clicking here.
Take note of the date. Feel free to visit the Blog Page to explore the entire series.  

Would you like to explore the series at your own pace?
Consider purchasing Vantage Point: A New View of Rest, Rhythm, and the Work of God for yourself or others. 7,000 copies are transforming lives all around the world. Click here to learn of purchasing possibilities. 


Brenda Jank and the Run Hard. Rest Well team are thought leaders in the arena of Restorative Wellness. Find additional resources at www.RunHardRestWell.org. Contact us at: brenda@runhardrestwell.org

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