The same thing that protected your distant ancestors from threats to their lives may be putting your health in danger. Back when your ancestor saw a dangerous wild animal or another person who meant to cause them harm, their brain told their adrenal glands to generate a chemical called cortisol. That chemical helped sharpen their attention by increasing the amount of glucose in the bloodstream and reducing the amount of energy given to parts of the body that weren’t important in a crisis situation. Thanks to cortisol and other so-called stress hormones, your ancestor escaped to live another day.
Most of us no longer face threats from deadly animals or people, but our bodies still contain the chemicals that saved our ancestors. Unfortunately, as we experience the stresses of our daily lives, those chemicals are contributing to serious health problems.
We may recognize that the stressful situations of daily life — a tense day at work, an argument with a friend, or an annoying tailgater — aren’t life or death situations. However, our brains notice our response to those and other situations and assume we’re in real danger. So they flood our brains and bodies with cortisol and other chemicals that speed up our heart rate and make us feel tense. When the “threat” goes away, we return to normal.
But when we’re exposed to stressful situation after stressful situation, something starts to happen. Our brains become accustomed to the stress and generate more cortisol to stay ahead of it. That steady diet of stress hormones begins to affect our brains and bodies in damaging ways. Over time, it can increase our risk of things like anxiety and depression, heart disease, sleep problems, and can even cause us to gain weight.
Stress hormones like cortisol are instinctual, so you might think they’re out of our control. Actually, there are things we can do to reduce their impact on us and keep them from responding so frequently. First, we can learn to set boundaries for how we react to situations. For example, if we let rude drivers and heavy traffic get to us, our stress levels will increase. But if we go into our daily commute knowing we really can’t do anything about traffic or other drivers, we’re less likely to become upset by them. Basically, we have to teach ourselves not to get bothered by things outside of our control. We can save the stress hormones for truly dangerous situations.
Mindfulness and relaxation can help, too. Whether you choose something like yoga, simple meditation, or even making a point to concentrate on prayer several times a day, these actions help to calm your brain and reduce its reliance on those stress hormones. Regular exercise also reduces the impact of these hormones and can even improve your emotional well-being.
Don’t let daily stresses change your body chemistry. If you’re not sure how to take control over your emotions and your responses, set a time to talk with one of our professional counselors. We can show you some easy-to-follow techniques that can take advantage of your body’s natural healing powers.
Mike Spencer is one of Care to Change’s counselors trained in brain mapping. He works with men, sex addictions, marriages, and kids from hard places.