Have you ever been “in the zone”? You know that feeling—everything just seems to flow with ease, your mind is razor-sharp, and your outcomes are excellent. And in contrast, how about when you’re feeling overwhelmed with far too much on your plate, and there’s more on the way? Your heart pounds, everything seems challenging, and you worry if you can get it all done. Moderate stress can actually improve your performance, but when it builds above a certain point, performance suffers, and you can blame it largely on excess cortisol.
When your cortisol is under control, the sky’s the limit. Psychologists have studied the most talented athletes and have discovered a state of heightened focus that helped them stay “in the zone”—laser-focused with a sense of calm and clarity. Problem solving becomes automatic and it’s easy to move from one step to the next. When your cortisol is at the right level, you can get in the zone, too. Cortisol hormones attach themselves to mineralocorticoid receptors at lower stress levels, which improve memory. You’re able to stay focused under pressure and your memory is sharper. When you’re at a moderate stress level, your cortisol levels are neither too high nor too low, and you’re operating at peak performance. But once your cortisol levels increase beyond this point, you’re in the distress zone and productivity plummets.
Here’s how increased cortisol levels damage your productivity. Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger worked 18–hour days running his two practices in New York City. It was he who coined the term for the severe fatigue and stress he was experiencing from this routine—“burnout”. We experience this same feeling of burnout when cortisol levels are too high. Elevated cortisol levels cause neurons in the brain to fire more rapidly, creating extreme anxiety. Cortisol hormones also attach themselves to glucocorticoid receptors when stress levels are increased, which interferes with memory. Welcome to the “distress zone”, the home of lousy performance. You become stressed out, foggy, and forgetful. With your cortisol levels maxed out, anxiety peaks, paralyzing you and making it impossible to concentrate on your work. There’s good news, though. There are a number of practical ways to take control of your cortisol levels and reduce that harmful stress:
- Exercise regularly. According to research published by Harvard Medical School, about 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day (such as walking) can balance cortisol levels, manage blood sugar levels, and help you sleep better. The key is to avoid overexerting yourself, as this can actually increase cortisol.
- Get back to nature. Researchers have found that simply surrounding yourself in a natural environment lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and your heart rate.
- Consume cortisol–reducing nutrients and herbs. There are a number of vitamins, minerals and adaptogenic herbs that have been shown to reduce stress and cortisol levels. Phosphatidylserine,ashwagandha and rhodiola are three of the most widely used herbal stress-reducers. The tryptophan and Vitamin B12 found in bananas are great cortisol busters, while the magnesium in spinach balances cortisol production in the body. Phosphatidylserine-rich plant-foods like barley and beans help counteract the adverse effects of cortisol, too. Oranges, grapefruit, limes, lemons, kiwi, and pineapple are all incredibly high in crucial cortisol-busting vitamin C. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, brussels sprouts and cauliflower are rich in inflammation-busting, cortisol-lowering omega-3 fatty acids.
- Seek professional help. If you’re battling severe anxiety, a number of highly effective, beneficial treatments are available. Psychiatric medication, talk therapy, and neurofeedback have all been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety so you can live your happiest, most productive life.
A little stress is a good thing—it can boost your brainpower, immunity, and resiliency. But when stress becomes chronic, it can make you miserable, increasing your risk for anxiety and depression. If you have questions or need assistance in managing the stress in your life, we can help. Please contact us to learn more.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Executive Director at The Better Brain Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 833-964-8483 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.