Stress, Cortisol and a Simple Technique to Fight Back

Stress, Cortisol and a Simple Technique to Fight Back

When we encounter a situation that we perceive to be potentially dangerous our body responds by releasing the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.  Cortisol has often been deemed the “bad” hormone. And while too much cortisol secretion can cause deleterious effects, it’s not really the hormone’s fault. Cortisol is essential to life. In fact, there was a study done that bred mice with no ability to produce cortisol. They all died within a matter of hours. That may seem a little extreme, but I simply wanted to point out that cortisol is necessary for survival. Small increases of cortisol have positive effects such as a quick burst of energy, improved memory, a burst of increased immunity, a higher pain threshold, and elevated blood sugar to be used as fuel.

The Acute Stress Response: Fight or Flight

We were created to release cortisol and other stress hormones such as epinephrine in order to survive in fight or flight situations. For example, a zebra is grazing calmly on the savannah when he spots a lion. Immediately his heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, pupils dilate, muscles tense up, digestion slows down, and he is running for his life. He makes an escape and 5 minutes later is calmly grazing again with proper digestive function, relaxed muscles, normal heart rate, etc…. This is an illustration of a proper stress response. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often and for such prolonged periods of time that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.


While most of us do not have to escape from lions, we do have bills to pay, marital conflict, aging parents, sick children, difficult bosses, financial pressure, and multiple other stressors. Our bodies view this stress just like the zebra sees the lion. However our “lion” is usually persistent, prolonged, and not managed well. It is not as simple as escaping and then returning to lazily eating grass. This can result in a slew of negative health consequences such as weight gain, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, digestive disorders, autoimmune conditions, and heart disease to name a few.

Learn to Manage Stress

I acknowledge that we cannot change many of our stressors in life. Some things are simply out of our control. But we can change the way we perceive them and incorporate some simple stress management techniques to help decrease our stress response and lower our cortisol levels. One of my favorite is diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing”. This is a powerful way to decrease stress by activating relaxation centers in the brain. The abdominal expansion causes negative pressure to pull blood into the chest, improving the venous flow of blood back to the heart. Here’s what you do:

  •  Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, with your feet slightly apart, one hand on your abdomen near the navel, and the other hand on your chest.
  • Gently exhale the air in your lungs through your mouth, then inhale slowly through your nose to the count of 4, pushing out your abdomen slightly and concentrating on your breath. As you breathe in, imagine warm air flowing all over your body. Hold the breath for a count of at least 4 but not more than 7.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to 8. Gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely release the remaining air in the lungs.
  • Repeat until you feel deeply relaxed for a total of 5 cycles. You may be able to do only 1 or 2 cycles at first.
  • Once you feel comfortable with your ability to breathe into the abdomen, it is not necessary to use your hands on your abdomen and chest.

This is a cost effective (aka: free) way to start managing your stress more effectively. Try this simple breathing exercise twice a day for a week or two and see how you feel. It can also be used at any point during the day when stressors seem to pile up or you begin to feel overwhelmed.