Understanding Cortisol: Fight or Flight?


At the Hayakawa Mental Health Clinic we are often asked about how to express and work off anger and stress in a way that is both effective and socially acceptable.

Many times we are exposed to stress and anger but have no way of using up the stress hormone Cortisol that our body pours into our bloodstream.

When you’re angry, your body experiences emotional stress, leading to high levels of cortisol. The worst thing you can do is drown your anger in alcohol or bury it under a mountain of calories. This not only avoids expressing the emotion but also allows cortisol to settle.

Cortisol is a potent source of energy, but it’s not a welcome guest for long. It’s our fight-or-flight hormone, meant to fuel action. Understanding how cortisol works can help us manage its effects more effectively.

The Cortisol Mechanism

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It is released as part of the body’s fight-or-flight response, preparing you to either confront or flee from a threat. This hormone increases blood sugar levels, enhances brain function, and suppresses non-essential bodily functions, giving you the energy and focus needed in high-stress situations.

When Cortisol is Released
Cortisol levels naturally fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the morning to help you wake up and decreasing at night to prepare your body for sleep. However, when you encounter stress—whether it’s due to a looming deadline, an argument, or a perceived threat—your body ramps up cortisol production.

What Cortisol Does
In the short term, cortisol provides numerous benefits:

• Increases energy availability by converting proteins into glucose.

• Enhances brain function by improving focus and memory.

• Suppresses non-essential functions such as digestion and immune responses, to conserve energy for dealing with immediate threats.

The Consequences of Unused Cortisol
If the energy provided by cortisol is not used—meaning if you don’t engage in physical activity or another form of stress release—cortisol remains in your system. This can lead to several negative effects:

Muscle breakdown: 
Cortisol is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue.

Fat accumulation:

Especially around the midsection, since fat receptors there are highly sensitive to cortisol.

Chronic health issues
Including high blood pressure, impaired cognitive performance, and increased susceptibility to infections.

Consequences of Too Much Cortisol
Prolonged high levels of cortisol can have serious health consequences:

Weakened immune system: 
Making you more prone to illnesses.

Weight gain
Particularly abdominal fat, which is linked to various metabolic disorders.

Muscle weakness:

Due to the breakdown of muscle tissue.

Sleep disturbance:

Leading to fatigue and further stress.

Mood disorders: 

Such as anxiety and depression.

Strategies for Reducing the Negative Impact 
of High Levels of Cortisol
To mitigate the negative effects of high cortisol levels, consider these ten effective strategies:

Regular Exercise:
Physical activity helps metabolize excess cortisol. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week.

Mindfulness and Meditation:
Practices like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can reduce stress and lower cortisol levels.

Adequate Sleep:
Ensure you get 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night, as poor sleep can elevate cortisol levels.

Healthy Diet:
Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins helps maintain stable blood sugar levels, reducing stress on your body.

Social Support:
Engaging with friends and loved ones can provide emotional support and lower stress levels.

Hobbies and Interests:
Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing to help divert your mind from stressors.

Time Management:
Organize your day to avoid last-minute stress. Prioritize tasks and take breaks to prevent burnout.

Limit Stimulants:
Reduce intake of caffeine and sugar, as they can spike cortisol levels.

Relaxation Techniques:
Regularly practice relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery to calm your mind and body.

Remember, the key is to express your stress in a way that is healthy and constructive. Rather than translating your anger into destructive actions, channel it into creativity or productive endeavors.

Make cortisol your ally in your quest for self-improvement!