Written by: Tiffany Bartell
We have been spending a great deal of time discussing the topic of stress over the past few weeks — and for good reason. Stress is one of the most significant challenges that college students face and is something that needs to be monitored and managed intentionally. In previous posts on our social media page, and through our Stress Out Week event, we’ve learned that there can be positive stress that gives us energy and can be motivating, as well as negative stress, which can be de-motivating and has negative health implications. The hormone that is responsible for helping you to experience that “stressed out” feeling is called cortisol. You may have heard of it in classes or other articles about stress.
Cortisol is key to the fight-or-flight response in the body that can help you to get out of a burning building or run away from a dangerous experience. It helps your body to release glucose, which gives you that energetic stress feeling. Cortisol in the moment of stress or danger is healthy and important, but chronic stress can cause cortisol levels to become high for prolonged periods of time.
According to an article published by the Amen Clinic, this can lead to increased weight gain, difficulty sleeping, increased depression and anxiety and decreased happiness. We all know that stress can increase cortisol levels, but studies show that sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and insufficient quality of sleep can also increase cortisol in the body. The Amen Clinic proposes easy-to-follow strategies for balancing your cortisol levels. The first is to make sure to protect your sleep. Make seven-nine hours of sleep nightly a regular routine for optimal mental health. Sleep is one of the pillars of mental health and is key to wellbeing, as it helps enable your body to regulate and balance cortisol levels.
Another strategy is regular movement, or exercise. According to an article published in 2017, Amen Clinic reports that moderate exercise can help the body balance cortisol levels, and research supports its benefits on stress, anger, depression and anxiety. Taking regular walks on the greenway or one of the beautiful trails surrounding campus can give you just the break you need to reset and allow your body to return to a state of calm.
Other ways to lower cortisol levels include laughing, listening to calming music and staying hydrated. Eating a healthy, plant-based diet is another way to maintain lower cortisol levels.
Feeling stressed in the moment? Take the time to engage in relaxation. Breathing has been shown to lower cortisol levels almost instantly. A relaxing massage can also decrease cortisol levels and increase dopamine and serotonin levels.
In times of stress and pressure, it is tempting to buckle down and work harder with less breaks and more internal pressure. Remember to take care of your body so that your beautiful brain can both work well and feel great.
For more information on this topic, check out the Amen Clinic’s blog: https://www.amenclinics.com/blog/cortisol-try-these-13-strategies-to-soothe-the-stress-hormone