When we start to stress, our body reacts as if we were fighting or running away. This condition is mainly determined by cortisol, called the “stress hormone”, an excess of which can damage our body and mind.
The fight-or-flight response was well known to our ancestors. During hunting and gathering food, the human body had to be constantly ready for action, and the chances of survival depended on the ability to react as quickly and effectively as possible. Of course, hunting and gathering is generally not our usual way of obtaining food, however, the mechanism of reaction to perceived trauma remains the same. Sudden danger (whether real or caused by emotion) floods the body with cortisol. During this process, a large dose of glucose hits the muscles, the blood vessels narrow, the heart speeds up, and the immune system and memory begin to work more efficiently. All this perfectly prepares us for a swift escape or a physical exchange of arguments, but at the same time limits our ability to carry out tasks in which we use knowledge and thinking ability rather than physical strength. However, in today’s world, we may need to face such challenges on a daily basis.
The forgetful hormone
The sudden influx of glucose from the brain to the muscles causes that situation that is usually not difficult when we are calm but becomes an insurmountable problem when we are under stress. Then we also experience problems with long-term memory. We all know what it is like to instantly forget what we wanted to say, or something was “on the tip of our tongue” but we cannot gain access to it. There are also situations where we draw a blank, whereas in normal circumstances we would know the answer. The culprit in these cases is cortisol. Students took part in studies that proved those who were given this hormone before the test scored worse than those in the placebo group. Under the influence of cortisol, we lose creativity or the ability to improvise, and instead, we can only access already learned information. The brain, figuratively speaking, closes its door to us.
However, memory problems are small in comparison to what happens when temporary stressful states become chronic. Our body becomes unable to distinguish between the state of relaxation and tension and as a result, is always ready to fight or escape. The muscles get more sugars, the heart speeds up, and the memory switches to energy-saving mode. In addition to this, there is insomnia, spiralling into each new “sleepless” day. The body’s response is long-term stomach problems and weakening of the immune system, which means the body becomes vulnerable to chronic infection which is difficult to cure. Energy is redirected not only from the brain but also from the reproductive system. When stress continues, cortisol can literally become a killer. If we don’t deal with cortisol ourselves, then it will deal with us, more easily than you think!
What can help in the fight against cortisol:
- martial arts – can signal that we have already the “fight” attitude behind us,
- dancing – relaxes the mind, and the music provides a release for the mind,
- meditation – allows you to focus on mindfulness and helps control our emotions and calm the body,
- are for sleeping and sleep hygiene – sensory blankets for adults can be used to enhance the calming effects,
- frequent interaction with people – building and strengthening social bonds causes natural ecstasy, or oxytocin, to be produced in our body.