‘I feel like I’m about to explode inside.’ This is how my son told me he felt in the run up to GCSEs. What he was describing was a massive build up of cortisol.
Cortisol is known as a stress hormone. It floods the body when it detects that you may need some help to escape or fight that sabre-tooth tiger. When you’re doing exams however, or have a big project on at work, the fight-flight hormones aren’t dissipated through action, and they remain swirling around your body.
Too much cortisol on a regular basis has some scary effects on the mind and body. It is associated with lower immunity, higher blood pressure and cholesterol and weight gain. It has a negative impact on memory and brain function, which is just what you need when you have an exam. It’s also self-perpetuating. It has been found that too much cortisol can actually increase the size of the neurons in the amygdala. This is the part of the brain responsible for aggression and fight-flight type decisions (the Chimp brain).
So, what can we do to reduce or get rid of cortisol?
Ultimately it’s about really tackling how you react to situations. You need to start letting go of the need to control everything, and dealing with underlying issues around perfectionism, people pleasing, imposter syndrome and self-esteem.
However, while you’re working on that lot (!) there are a number of things you can do to get rid of excess cortisol and calm down your body’s tendency to produce too much.
1 Physical exercise.
Cortisol is a fight-flight flight hormone, so one of the best ways to get it out of your system is through physical activity. Go for a run, or just run up and down the stairs at work.
2. Meditation and mindfulness
Cortisol develops the amygdala, but meditation and mindfulness have been shown to develop the pre-frontal cortex, the more logical and developed part of the brain. Even more importantly, meditating regularly will strengthen the connections between the two parts. So, the more you practise mindfulness, the more you will be able to slow down the production of stress hormones.
A recent study proved what we have always known: being in nature is great for reducing stress levels. The Japanese call walking in the forest, Forest Bathing, or Shinrin Yoku. It seems that trees actually give out organic compounds which help support our immune systems.
There are plenty of studies showing that watching a funny film has measurable effects on reducing stress hormones. So, if you’re stressed, watching a thriller may not be as wise a decision as watching something that gives you a belly laugh.
…now to get my teenager to actually do some of these things!