This past Monday, our team had our daily morning standup. And, when I joined the call, everyone seemed a little down. There wasn’t the normal banter that we have. As we started to go around the call and ask how everyone was doing, no one had any real highlights. It was a weekend (like most weekends lately) of sitting in our homes. Many of us just aren’t feeling great overall. As I was thinking about our team, I realized I’m having a very similar experience, and it’s causing me not to feel like myself. The normal life routines I love, like going to SoulCycle, visiting my closest friends, eating out, and doing long bike rides with my kids, aren’t happening right now.
So, this week, I’ve been digging into what’s really going on in our minds and bodies during seasons like this. I’m trying to understand what’s causing me (and others) to feel down, and if there’s anything I can do to change how I feel. This is what I’ve found —
The Science When We’re Stressed
When an alarm sounds in the brain (like when we read a piece of negative news that makes us feel out of control, you know, the thing that’s happening multiple times a day right now), it sends a stress signal to the brain. At this point, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered which is the “gas pedal” that controls our fight or flight response and gives us energy in a crisis. This is a helpful and good response. If a tiger is about to attack us, we need our sympathetic nervous system to be triggered.
When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, our adrenal glands pump adrenaline through our bodies. At this point, our pulse and blood pressure rise, more oxygen is sent to the brain, all senses become alert, we become full of energy from released blood sugar, and our adrenal glands begin releasing cortisol.
Ideally, once a threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in as the “brake”, used to calm the body. At that point, cortisol levels return to normal. Normal levels of cortisol help us stay “sharp” throughout the day.
But, if the brain continues to perceive a threat (or stress), the adrenal glands continue releasing cortisol. And this is where the issue is for most of us right now — due to persistent stressors coming our way (i.e., the news, our friends talking about the Coronavirus, worry about our jobs, etc.), our parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t activate and our bodies are unable to lower our cortisol levels. And, it’s those sustained high levels of cortisol that can really hurt us — making us feel symptoms like severe fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. And, it’s likely this is what many of us are experiencing today. We’re tired. We’re irritable. We’re having a hard time concentrating — all because we’re not lowering our cortisol levels.
When I was recently able to name this and what’s physiologically going on in my body, it gave me the power to move towards a solution.
So, How Do We Lower Our Cortisol Levels?
Here are the ways I’ve found to lower my cortisol levels lately —
- Get 8 hours of sleep. Without sleep, our bodies will continue to release cortisol. It’s because we need that extra push (i.e., stress) to keep us going.
- Watch our intake of the news. Every time we see a piece of news that increases our stress, our cortisol levels will ultimately rise. So, how do we plan or restrict our intake of news throughout the day?
- Do things to increase our oxytocin levels. One of the best ways to decrease our cortisol is to increase our oxytocin. People have called oxytocin the “love hormone” because it’s the feeling we get when we are touched or around someone we like. So, in this season, it’s vital to hug our family members and connect with others via Zoom or with our neighbors as we sit (six feet from one another!) on our front porch.
- Exercise. Moderate amounts of exercise (not extreme) can help normalize cortisol levels.
- Do something to help others. One of the best ways I’ve found to get my brain out of “fight or flight” mode is to get outside of myself and help others. In this season, I’ve been calling someone I know is lonely or dropping off flowers at people’s homes. Regan on the GAN team just had flowers and a handwritten note personally delivered to each person on our team.
6. Recognize when you feel stressed. When your brain starts to go to a place where you know that your body will start to experience stress, keep it in check. I wrote about this a couple weeks ago.
7. Have fun. When we’re relaxed it’s almost impossible for us to have stress hormones released. So, let’s do things like play board games with our partners, do jackbox.tv with our colleagues or climb on our countertops (this is Anna from the GAN Team climbing in her kitchen).
Good luck this week, I hope you’ll all be able to lower your cortisol and get back to feeling like yourselves soon.