My cortisol level was so high that my doctor called the lab to confirm the result. The lab said it was unlikely my result was accurate because it was too high. I knew the truth … my cortisol level was off the charts because I had experienced excessive, chronic stress for over a year. I had no doubt that cortisol, the stress hormone, was wreaking havoc with my mind, body, and spirit.
Are you suffering from chronic stress and wondering how you can limit its impact on your wellbeing? The following 6 frequently asked questions will provide some insight and strategies to try.
1. Is stress bad for me?
Most people hear the word stress and assume something negative. It’s true you want to manage the amount of stress you experience, however, not all stress is bad.
Back in 1908, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson found an empirical relationship between arousal (stress) and performance. The Yerkes-Dodson law says that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal but only up to a point.1 When stress becomes too high, performance decreases.
This image illustrates that you have zones of healthy and unhealthy stress. Your objective is to leverage stress just up to the point it becomes distress, thereby reducing the impact on your performance.
2. What does stress look like?
You may recognize some of these signs. While they’re common, the ways in which stress impacts your body is as unique as you are.
- Body: muscle aches, headaches, or backaches; increased susceptibility to colds or other illnesses; stomach upset and digestion problems; shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heartbeat, difficulty sleeping, and fatigue.
- Thoughts and feelings: forgetfulness, persistent negative thinking, repetitive thoughts, poor concentration, diminished reasoning ability; difficulty organizing, retaining or retrieving information you’ve learned; irritability, guilt, restlessness, sadness, anger, fear, feeling overwhelmed.
3. What is chronic stress?
Stress that impacts performance can be acute or chronic. For example, let’s say you’re in a fender bender. While you aren’t injured, your stress is high because you were caught by surprise when the car rear-ended you, and you’ll need another form of transportation while your car is repaired. Your heart rate is likely elevated; you may have trouble deciding about which towing company to call, and you may shed some tears because the wreck scared you. This is an example of acute stress because the consequences will be resolved in a few days, not several months.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re going through a contentious divorce with custody issues. You may experience significant disruption to any number of your body’s systems. The stress you’re experiencing will last months, if not longer. Chronic stress is suffered for a long period of time and the individual feels they have little or no control.3
Both acute and chronic stress involves the same kind of physical response, however, the length of time the response is active varies. The greater the length of time, the greater the destruction stress causes to your wellbeing.
4. What does chronic stress do to my body?
You’ve likely heard of the fight-or-flight response to stress. Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways that protect you from threats. While you no longer need protection from lions and tigers, your body doesn’t know this and reacts with the same fight-or-flight response to more modern stressors of mental overwhelm, physical overwork, and emotional distress.
Mayo Clinic explains the natural stress response in this way:
When you encounter a perceived threat — such as a large dog barking at you during your morning walk — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
When the natural stress response doesn’t turn off because the perceived stress is excessive, you constantly feel under attack.
Chronic activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow causes destruction to your mind, body, and spirit. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, you’re probably concerned about the destruction it can cause to your wellbeing and what to do about it.
5. What can I do to limit the impact of chronic stress?
To limit the impact of chronic stress, I would first start tracking what causes you to cross from the zone of healthy to the zone of unhealthy distress.
For example, you might cross from one zone to the other when you’ve:
- Received too many projects with a similar due date.
- Overcommitted yourself to social functions.
- Needed to miss work for a few days to care for a sick child.
- Missed getting enough sleep for several nights.
- Consumed too many foods and beverages that are excessive in sugar or other toxins.
Greater awareness of what causes you to feel distressed helps you:
- Prevent excessive stress that decreases your performance and sense of wellbeing because you recognize where your zones are.
- Build a tool kit to reduce stress and build resilience.
In addition to the experiences that flip you from the zone of healthy stress to a zone of distress, what do you already know about what helps you manage stress? Which daily health practices make you feel better? What kind of stress management techniques help?
6. What can I do right now to stop chronic stress?
It seems a bit of an oxymoron to consider how you can stop chronic stress immediately. That said, you can start right now without having a full plan in place. Start by committing to the following in the next 2-3 days:
- Get the stress out by venting to someone you trust and who listens well (and isn’t involved in the stressful circumstances). Just sharing the stress out loud can help.
- Plan a self-care activity that will provide good endorphins to help offset the free-flowing cortisol.
- Show some self-compassion by talking to yourself as if you were a best friend. If your best friend vented to you, how would you respond? What would you suggest? Do that for yourself!
Wrapping It Up
Chronic stress is a formidable opponent and one that wreaks havoc with your wellbeing. It’s worth the effort to figure out where your zone of healthy stress is and how to stay there. If you’d like to know what type of self-care you need most take the quiz below.
- Jamot, Pierre. (2016). LEADERSHIP AND EMPLOYEE’S EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: NEW MANAGERIAL PERSPECTIVES. 10.13140/RG.2.1.3290.0724.