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10 Steps for Managing Modern Day Cortisol

If you’re in survival mode with the stressors of parenting, work, and all the other things in your life, how can you keep your head above water long enough to see off in the distance and plan how to get there?

As I’ve been studying functional medicine, one of the biggest take-home points has been the effect of cortisol on our bodies. Cortisol is a steroid our bodies make to give us the surge of adrenaline when we need it. We don’t need it 90% of the time in our lives.

Maybe if we’re mugged or we have to confront a robber, but mostly we don’t need those primordial surges of adrenaline. We don’t have lions and cheetahs attacking us. When I used to get neurofeedback, the lady hooking me up referred to me as a peak performer, I felt proud. I have always thought of myself as a high achiever. But this achieving and performing come at a cost to our mental and physical health. When we’re in fight or flight mode with our stress level soaring, we simply can’t plan for the future. Our bodies are literally programmed to get through each second of the day and focus on survival as opposed to stopping to plan for the future. Imagine a lion is chasing you, you’re a zebra. You don’t have time to sit and think, “Wonder what meadow I’ll eat supper in tomorrow”. Nope, you’re running like crazy praying you won’t die. Even though parenting or dealing with frustrated patients isn’t the same as running from a lion, we can still experience a huge amount of stress. Fight or flight is any state you find yourself in that involves intense fear or worry and monopolizes your thoughts. Have you experienced this lately?

It could be a new job, an upcoming move, or a health scare. When my dad was having cancer surgery last year, I remember not being able to think about planning for Christmas or holidays because I was solely focused on him making it through surgery. I was talking to a friend and asked her if she liked her job in sales. She confirmed what I’d suspected. She hates her job but she’s worried about the economy, she’s going through a divorce, and her kids are busy with activities and have their own issues around the divorce. She’s gotta keep her job for health insurance and she can’t imagine finding time to pursue anything else.

Another friend has had major health issues. She’s developed a new chronic illness requiring new medications and new specialist appointments. The new medicine had side effects, landing her in the hospital, which led to another medicine and another specialist. She’s also trying to work full-time and be a mom. She’s like, “Must be nice to be able to rewrite your life but how’s this possible when you’re trying not to die?” If you’re like my friends and feel like you’re on the hamster wheel and can’t get off or if you’re hanging on for dear life and can’t let go or you’ll fall to your death, remember these words from the 90’s Wilson Phillips song: Don’t you know, things could changeThings could go your wayIf you Hold On for one more dayCan you Hold OnCan you Hold On Think about your life’s timeline. I was talking to Dorothy Andreas and she had me write out a timeline of my major life events. She said you could do different timelines for relationships, career, or whatever. You’ll have highs where everything is amazing, and you’ll have lows. What she pointed out was that you won’t keep going down, down, down. Life is cyclical. We can’t see it when we’re in the valleys of life, but things are going to pick back up. Here’s what to do if you’re getting run over by the struggle bus:

1. Pause. Life often throws poo in the fan to force you to stop what you’re doing and take inventory.

2. Grab a sheet of paper. Make 5 columns. Label them relationships (or split this one into marriage and parenting), career, spiritual, physical

3. Brain dump all the ways each of the categories suck right now.

4. Think of one teeny-tiny step someone who was in your shoes might take IF they wanted to move up instead of further down the valley. By phrasing it this way, you’re not asking what you can do, you’re asking what someone else might do. Let’s say you’ve gained 30lbs because of prednisone for this new disease. You list 15 things that suck physically right now (not sleeping, clothes won’t fit, can’t exercise without peeing on yourself, your eyebrows are falling out, sugar levels are now prediabetic, etc). If I told you to start jogging 5 days a week or to give up all gluten, sugar, and dairy, that would feel impossible. But if you stepped outside of yourself, used the third person to trick your brain, and asked what is one tiny step she could take said, your brain might answer “Well, she could walk 2 days a week” or “She could take her lunch to work 3 out of 5 days instead of eating out.” That’s something. Start with something.

5. Write out an intention for each day. Don’t just say it, write it. Today mine was to be fully awake to all the good things that happen. Some days it’s to put healthy stuff into my body and leave out the crap food. Other days it’s to move as much as possible.

6. Accountability: Announce your intentions to others. Tell your coworkers your plans, tell strangers. Maybe your intention isn’t something big like selling your house and moving overseas. Maybe at this point in your life, your intention is to get out of bed and get dressed. Find someone else who’s been where you are. If you’re facing a health scare, join an online support group. If you’re going through relationship woes, it might not be the best time to hang out with your sister who’s just found the love of her life.

7. Walk, don’t run. If you’re barely surviving right now for whatever reason, your body doesn’t need surges of cortisol. Instead of high-intensity exercise, focus on slow movement like a long walk. Notice the sky, trees, birds. Do yoga, but not power yoga. Lift weights, but not in a HIIT style class. Watch your caffeine intake. Your mind says, “I NEED this!” but your body may have enough adrenaline surging through without adding external stimulants like coffee.

8. Sleep. Sleep is biochemical gold. It’s irreplaceable. You must have it. Do whatever it takes including earplugs, sound machine, sleep mask, hire a night nurse, or buy melatonin.

9. Journal. If you’re in a rough spot, you’ve got lots of brain clutter going on. Lots of thoughts about what’s going on. You could certainly pay a therapist, but you could also start writing. Write online on a private journal or compose an email to yourself, write your heart out, and delete it. The point is to get the toxic thoughts out of your head.

10. Grace. Show grace to yourself. Notice the voice in your head telling you how much you should be doing and how you should be feeling. This is called shoulding on yourself. You’re in a rut and you’re allowed to be there for a little while. Let yourself wallow around and see how misery tastes. Then, pick yourself up and slowly begin the climb out, taking however long it takes.

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