Guest Post By: Vive Health
Positively adapting to negative sources of stress and trauma in your life is an essential part of caregiving. Some researchers call this process resilient coping while others call it stress management . . . whatever name you give it, you can be certain that the way you respond to stress in your life will directly affect how well you are able to provide care to your loved one.
You have likely already heard of one of the major players in your stress response system, cortisol. But do you know exactly what it is and how your body uses it? Don’t miss this quick caregiver guide to understanding cortisol and how to lower your own levels:
What is Cortisol?
Commonly referred to as the “stress hormone,” cortisol is a primary hormone that is released by your adrenal glands when you encounter a perceived threat or external source of stress. As a key player in your body’s internal alarm system, cortisol, along with adrenaline, cues your fight or flight response.
While adrenaline is the source of your increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure, it is cortisol that enhances the way your body utilizes its glucose stores by increasing your blood sugar levels and boosting the availability of substances the body needs to repair tissue. This protective biochemical process is necessary for healthy functioning, however, sometimes it can go haywire, especially when stress is chronically present over extended periods of time.
What are the Symptoms of High Cortisol Levels?
In addition to communicating signals to your brain regarding fear and mood, cortisol production also alters your immune responses and suppresses important processes like digestive functioning. An overproduction of cortisol activates these stress responses and they essentially stay in “on” mode for much longer than they need to be. This can lead to symptoms and side effects including:
Increased appetite and weight gain
How Can I Lower My Cortisol Levels?
For a more in-depth understanding of your personal exposure to chronic stress and how it’s affecting your cortisol levels, definitely start a conversation with your doctor. At home, however, you can learn to control cortisol levels and naturally lower them with these helpful steps:
Exercise – the very practice of exercise stimulates positive hormonal activity in the body including the production of serotonin and endorphins that help boost your mood and make you feel good. Squeezing 30 minutes of exercise into your day may seem like an impossible feat, however, when you break it up into smaller increments of 10 or 15 minutes, you develop more attainable goals.
Physical fitness ideas for caregivers include taking a brisk 15-minute walk, practicing yoga at home (stream a free instructional video on Youtube), doing body weight exercises like planks and squats, and strength-training with resistance bands or lightweight dumbbells.
Manage your anger – a 2016 study published in Stress and Health looked specifically at caregivers of people with autism and found that those who exhibited high-resilience characteristics released less cortisol into their system. Caregivers with low-resilience responses and who were more prone to anger, on the other hand, released higher levels of cortisol.
Managing anger responses takes practice but healthy habits can help like meditating, recognizing your anger triggers and trying to avoid them, talking to a counselor, and practicing deep breathing as a precursor to responding in a stressful situation.
Modify your diet – while you might associate your diet largely with how you “look,” it’s actually a primary contributor to how you “feel” on a regular basis too. Foods that help you maintain healthy blood sugar levels and fight inflammation have been shown to help with hormonal imbalances and bring cortisol levels back into normal ranges.
How can you get started? Incorporate more foods with essential nutrients (and phytonutrients) as well as fiber, antioxidants, protein, and probiotics. This means ditch the salty, sugary, fried and fatty processed foods and up your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy fats like coconut oil and avocado, and lean proteins like eggs and fish.
Seek social support – researchers aren’t clear exactly why, but strong social safety nets that consist of people and programs you can rely on in times of crisis and chronic stress seem to counteract cortisol overproduction and increase longevity. Emotional support systems for caregivers may include professionals like therapists and doctors as well as other members like family, friends, faith groups, in-person and online support groups, co-workers, confidants and so on.