We’ve all been hearing a lot about how to manage stress and anxiety since COVID-19 started. We want to acknowledge that as the duration of this pandemic continues, sustained states of anxiety may be affecting the cortisol levels in your body. While many things may be outside your control right now, we’re hoping that giving you some tools to lower your cortisol levels and help you take charge of your responses to anxiety will help you feel more in-charge.
Before we launch into that though, we’d like to first talk about how you may be feeling right now. As everyone has been staying at home for much longer than anyone may have anticipated, it’s not necessarily getting easier. Most of us initially adapted to the onslaught of changes pretty well, but becoming accustomed to the fact that things might stay this way for the foreseeable future is a whole different story. As humans, we trust that we can deal with a crisis or something uncomfortable when we know it will only be temporary. We aren’t as good as coping with significant changes when they’re on-going or long-term. This is especially true with a situation like COVID-19 – which has also been a change no one invited or expected.
And yet here we are! You’ve probably been at home with the same people (or alone) for months and will likely continue to be for many months to come. If you’re living with active addiction in your home – yours or a loved one’s – or you’ve been sober but are now struggling to maintain your sobriety, being stuck at home may be especially difficult. It’s easy for tensions to rise and not having access to some of your normal ways of coping such as getting together with friends, going out to work, attending meetings in-person, or being able to exercise at a gym or pool certainly hasn’t helped.
We also recognize that drug and alcohol use/abuse is on the rise nationally and that relapse and overdose rates are unusually high throughout the country (the Washington Post released a comprehensive article about this on July 1). As scary as this is, it makes a lot of sense because using alcohol and/or drugs is often the quickest way to change the way you feel and to experience immediate relief from pain and fear. However, it is not the healthiest choice to make and the consequences are often dire. We care deeply that things may be hard for you right now, and we want to support you in making choices that contribute to your well-being AND help you to feel better – without having to pick up a drink or drug.
With that in mind, we want to tell you about the relationship between anxiety and cortisol and give you tools to use to help you feel better.
What Is Cortisol and Why Does It Matter?
Simply put, cortisol is a stress hormone in your body. It’s often referred to as the “fight or flight” chemical, and it’s produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisol acts like a stimulant and causes your heart rate to increase, your blood vessels to constrict, and it’s even the reason your muscles tense up when you feel threatened. This is a good thing when you’re facing a temporary challenge because it gives you the energy and focus you need to figure out solutions. However, having too much cortisol in your system or producing cortisol over a longer time period can be damaging to your health and can exacerbate your anxiety.
When your cortisol levels spike or are sustained for a long period of time, the mechanisms within your body that prevent infections, repair wounds, and fight against forgein bodies start to get deactivated. This means your immune responses can become suppressed and you can become more vulnerable to things like COVID-19, as well as other health issues you may be dealing with. So this is an especially important time to learn how to lower your cortisol levels – both to decrease your anxiety and support your immune system.
6 Ways to Lower Your Cortisol and Start Feeling Better
When you’re able to reduce your stress and anxiety without using alcohol or drugs, the rewards are enormous – you feel better physically, your relationships with family and friends improve, you find it easier to take things in stride, and you enjoy a more positive outlook on life in general. A key component to feeling less stressed is being able to lower the levels of cortisol circulating in your body. The good news is that it’s not that hard to do! When you start using these techniques and your cortisol levels drop, your body’s self-regulation and repair system start getting back to work. And that’s great news for everyone!
Here are some proven ways to start lowering your cortisol and easing your anxiety.
- Extending Your Out-Breath. Practicing mindfulness and focusing on your breathing are direct avenues to lowering your cortisol. But here’s a way to focus on your breathing that you may not have heard of before. Most of the time we hear about taking deep breaths to relax, but taking a deep breath is actually linked to your sympathetic nervous system which controls your flight-or-fight response. Exhaling is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system which influences your body’s ability to relax and calm down. In other words, your outward breath is neurologically tied to the relaxation response in your brain and to lowering your cortisol levels.
The next time you feel anxious, before you take a deep breath, try to exhale as long as you can instead. Push all the air out of your lungs, then simply let your lungs do their work inhaling air. The goal is to spend a little bit longer exhaling than you do inhaling. For example, try inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 6. Keep practicing for five to ten minutes. You’ll be amazed at the results!
- Getting Proper Rest. As we mentioned in our social media post last week, the amount of sleep you get can affect your cortisol levels. It’s important to pay attention to the amount and quality of sleep you’re getting. Do your best to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. It also helps to make your sleeping environment as peaceful as possible by using dark curtains, turning off technology (or using blue-light blocking glasses) 2 hours prior to bedtime, getting quiet 30 minutes prior to going to sleep, and keeping your room as cool as possible. It may also help to use a noise maker or to wear earplugs so noises are disturbing you during the night.
Trying your best to implement any of these techniques will bring you one step closer to getting a better night’s rest which will lower your cortisol levels significantly.
- Eating a Balanced Diet. We know, we know…who wants to hear about healthy eating – again?! It’s been easy to snack on carbs and sugary snacks during COVID, and there have even been jokes about people gaining the COVID 15! But as hard as it may be, eating nutritious meals and snacks that are made up of proteins, veggies, whole grains and fiber really does help to lower your cortisol a lot.
No one is asking you to be perfect, but if you can try to make more of your food choices from these categories, your body will thank you. It’s also important to drink plenty of water (we’re in the summer heat after all) and to moderate the amount of caffeine you consume.
- Laughing. You probably know that when you’re laughing it’s hard to feel stressed at the same time. Laughing releases a ton of feel-good chemicals into your body and helps to reset your stress hormones. While things may not seem too funny right now, do what you can to take time to laugh.
Watch a funny movie, browse social media for humorous memes, watch a silly Youtube video, or watch some animals play together. Try to recall funny events from your past or a joke that always makes you laugh and tell it to someone else. Anything you can do to produce even a small chuckle will signal your body to calm down and chill out.
- Engaging in Regular Physical Activity. You don’t have to run a marathon or become a bodybuilder to lower your cortisol levels with exercise. In fact, strenuous activity can often increase stress hormones. But engaging in moderate, regularly scheduled exercise does wonders to reduce anxiety and lower your cortisol. Try doing something you enjoy – walking, dancing around the house to your favorite music, yoga, biking or swimming are all great ways to get your body moving while not stressing yourself out.
Some community pools are closed due to COVID-19, but others are open for lap swimming if you call ahead to book at time and a lane. You’re also still able to go to most malls and walk inside if you wear a mask. You might have to be more creative right now, but any movement is better than none.
- Reaching Out to Others. Even though the ways you socialize have probably changed pretty drastically, connecting with others is still vitally important to your mental health and wellbeing. Isolation and loneliness increase cortisol levels (and addiction rates). Doing what you can to feel connected to others- through the phone or computer – are better options than not connecting at all.
It also helps your stress levels to get out of yourself (or what’s happening in your home) by reaching out to others and asking how they’re doing. Think of someone who might need to hear from you, and give them a call or schedule a time to Zoom with them.
If you’re at home with the same people all the time, see if you can meet with a friend outside, six feet apart with masks on to change things up a bit. It even helps you relax when you’re social with pets – so don’t underestimate the value of cuddling with your favorite furry friend.
Volunteering is another great option to try. There are many organizations right now who desperately need volunteers. Most places have regulations in place to keep you and others safe from COVID-19, and being of service can help you to feel connected both socially and spiritually.
We’re Here to Help
We hope that you’ll be able to incorporate some of these ideas into your daily routine and start feeling better able to cope with the anxiety that is almost unavoidable right now.
We are committed to providing you with services to help you feel your best – whether that’s helping you to get or stay sober, to intervene with a loved one’s addiction, or to counsel you through relationship and family struggles – we’re here for you.
We invite you to explore the services we offer throughout our website or by calling our office for a free 15-minute consultation. You can also follow us on social media for updates, informative posts, and some fun!