Anxiety and Cortisol 101
Want to better control the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic? You have more control than you think. Understanding anxiety and cortisol is the key.
Cortisol is a hormone produced and released by your brain in a response to stress. We all have cortisol and we all need it. It helps with things like:
- reducing inflammation
- keeping a healthy sleep/wake cycle
- maintaining good blood pressure
- keeping consistent blood sugar levels
Your level of cortisol is generally higher in the morning and lower in the evening. You have energy during the daytime, and your brain and body calm down for better sleep in the evening.
Cortisol is also your body’s primary stress hormone.
When you encounter a stressful situation (or chronic stress), your body reacts with an automatic fight-or-flight response. This comes from a part of your brain called the amygdala. Your amygdala is a part of your brain that evolved to protect you from literally life-threatening situations, such as being eaten by a sabretooth tiger.
Fight-or-flight is Triggered – Here Comes Cortisol
First, your brain produces a rush of cortisol and adrenaline which gives your body what it needs for an instinctive fight or flight.
Imagine driving on the freeway and a car is about to cut you off. You have an immediate and instinctual response to either hit the brake or veer away or maybe speed up. This happens quite automatically. You don’t pause to think about your alternatives. You just react.
In a fight-or-flight situation like that, it would actually be quite unproductive to use your logical, frontal lobe brain to analyze all the pros and cons of what to do next. There is no time for that.
So, your brain gives you a temporary burst of stress chemicals to give you a moment of what amounts to “brain fog.” This actually happens BY DESIGN. Your rational thinking is temporarily blocked so that you can respond instinctually and immediately.
Thus, one common symptoms of stress and anxiety is brain fog. It’s a thing, and it is actually by design.
What Happens Next?
After you narrowly escape that car accident, you feel physical symptoms like:
- heart racing
- change in breathing (faster and shallow)
- muscle tension especially in neck and shoulders
- hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel.
As cortisol and adrenaline move from your brain into your bloodstream, these physical symptoms are common.
But Now It Happens in Other Situations Too
Through evolution, you and your brain have learned to react to situations that are not actually as dangerous at all. Deadlines, to-do lists, pressure, overwhelm, fear of what others think of us, feeling we have to please others, and not having enough time… Do these ring a bell? All these things cause the very same stress response in your brain and body: anxiety and cortisol.
In our crazy busy world (not to mention two years of a pandemic, a war in Ukraine, and some extreme things happening in the U.S.), many of us are in a constant state of excess anxiety and cortisol and adrenaline.
High Stress means High Cortisol
Cortisol plays a role in anxiety and depression, metabolism, immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease, fatigue, inflammation, blood sugar levels and more. This explains why stress is a contributor to most every health problem. Thus, managing anxiety and cortisol is a critical component of your overall wellness plan.