Stress Kills: The Effects of Long Term High Levels of Cortisol

Imagine you are walking along a path in the woods and you come across a
giant black bear. Your palms begin to sweat, your heart starts pounding, your
muscles tense up, and you freeze. Your body is on high alert and reading to flee or
fight at any moment (though fighting would probably not work out in your favor
against a bear). This response to the current threat is called your fight or flight
response. It starts in the brain when the hypothalamus sets off an alarm system in
your brain. It signals the adrenal glands to release a cocktail of hormones, including
epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol. This
increases your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and energy supplies, as well as
suppressing nonessential systems such as the digestive system, reproductive
system, and growth processes. This is all temporary, increasing your ability to react
to the perceived threat. Once the threat is gone, your hormones return to normal.

Believe it or not, your body reacts in a very similar way to everyday
stressors, such as paying the bills, taking care of your family, and managing a huge
workload. In the short term, flight or flight can be helpful and adaptive. However,
what happens when everyday stressors persist and the response does not get
turned off? What happens when your body is consistently exposed to high levels of
epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, suppressing systems in your body and
keeping you at a high level of arousal?

Long term exposure to stress hormones wreaks havoc on almost every part
of your body. High levels of epinephrine can damage the blood vessels and arteries,
causing high blood pressure and increasing risk of heart attack or stroke. Increased
levels of cortisol contribute to buildup of fat tissue and subsequently cause weight
gain. Elevated cortisol also impairs functions of the brain; it can kill brain cells and
shrink the prefrontal cortex, which is vital for memory and learning. In a nutshell,
long term elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones disrupt almost every
bodily process, increasing risk of :

  • Anxiety
  •  Depression
  • Digestive Problems
  • Headaches
  • Sleep Problems
  • Weight Gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Infertility/lack of sexual arousal
  • Hair loss
  • Muscle weakness
  • Osteoporosis

Some of you reading this may be a little stressed at this point, realizing how
detrimental your daily stress can be. It’s ok, take a deep breath and read on.
Remember, these effects only happen when your body stays in a high state of
arousal and does not calm down. It is now time to talk about stress management.
Stressful events are not going to go away but you can change how you react to them
and how they impact you. There are many strategies and activities that can help
calm your body’s response to stress.

  • Take care of your body. Limit alcohol and caffeine, eat healthy
    meals, get enough sleep, and exercise daily. Treat your body to a
    relaxing massage once in awhile. Listen to your body, if you are tired
    all the time or cannot sleep, you need to take a step back.
  • Take care of your mind. Maintain a positive attitude, focus on the
    positive, accept what you cannot control, and learn what triggers your
    anxiety. You can control your thoughts, which in turn controls your
    feelings of stress and anxiety and how your body reacts.
  • Take action. Volunteer, get involved in your community, and give
    back. Learn and practice mindfulness, such as taking deep breaths,
    meditating, and relaxation techniques. Pet an animal or ask for a hug.
    Keeping positive relationships can improve your resiliency and
    support system.
  • Seek out help. Talk to someone, whether it be a friend or professional
    if needed. Many people avoid seeking help because they feel they
    should be able to handle their stress by themselves, but if you are
    feeling overwhelmed it is the best thing you can do for yourself.
    The effects of long term stress can be detrimental and scary. It is important
    to listen to your body and make changes when it is telling you that you are taking on too much stress. Know that you are not alone. Whether you need a listening ear, someone to problem solve with you, or help learning how to implement the
    strategies above, therapy can help. You do not have to figure this out by yourself and a therapist can walk along side you with support and guidance.
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