Cortisol: Its Role in Mental Health and Anxiety

Cortisol and impact on anxiety and mental health

You may have heard about cortisol and its association with stress. However, did you know high cortisol levels can interfere with your overall health and mental well-being?

Cortisol and Its Function

Cortisol is a corticosteroid or glucocorticoid hormone vital to healthy body functions. Your adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys, produce cortisol. The hormone helps regulate blood pressure, control blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and also aids your body in converting food into energy. However, too much cortisol can be unhealthy and lead to chronic stress and anxiety, increasing your risk for hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

Cortisol and Stress

Another of cortisol’s major roles is to enable your body to respond to stressful situations. It plays an essential role in the fight-or-flight response, which occurs when you feel threatened. When you sense danger, the pituitary gland causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol to help your body handle the situation.

Suppose you are about to walk across a street, and a speeding vehicle appears out of nowhere. If you are like most people, your fight-or-flight response will kick in, causing a pounding heart and heavy breathing, especially if you must run and narrowly escape getting struck. However, once the incident passes and you have had some time to calm down, you may not think about it again. In this case, your cortisol level probably returned to normal quickly, along with your heart rate and breathing.

Everyone experiences stress but may not be aware of the effects of chronic stress on cortisol levels. Let’s revisit the scenario with the speeding vehicle. Suppose you have the same fight-or-flight experience whenever you step into a crosswalk, which could be several times a day. In that case, you may develop chronic stress that triggers constant cortisol release, preventing you from feeling relaxed or in control even when there is no imminent threat.

Effects of Chronic Stress on Cortisol Levels

Hypercortisolism can occur when the adrenals release too much cortisol. Other causes include chronic stress and benign or malignant adrenal gland tumors. Long-term use of steroid-containing medications, including corticosteroids for treating arthritis and other chronic illnesses, can also cause hypercortisolism.

Chronic stress that exposes the body to high cortisol levels doesn’t just arise from stressful events like encountering a vehicle speeding toward you. Some people experience a lifetime of stress from adversity, including abuse, neglect, and exposure to emotionally toxic environments. Chronic stress can trigger the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol repeatedly. Persistently high cortisol levels can even affect a person when they try to relax. The effects of stress on cortisol levels can be overwhelming.

The Relationship Between Cortisol and Mental Health

Chronic stress as a result of hypercortisolism can cause changes in the brain, which indicates there is a relationship between cortisol and mental health. Constantly being on edge may cause you to develop post-traumatic stress syndrome and experience mood changes, anxiety, and depression. Chronic stress can also lead to substance misuse. Additionally, insomnia associated with chronic stress can worsen mental health issues and make you feel tired, irritable, and unable to concentrate. A 2022 study by the American Psychological Association showed that about 37% of adults said they could not function when under stress.

Managing Cortisol for Anxiety Reduction

It may seem challenging to get cortisol under control so you can reduce anxiety or other cortisol-related mental health issues. However, there are some strategies for managing cortisol for anxiety reduction. One approach medical and mental health professionals recommend is diaphragmatic or deep breathing. You can practice breathing exercises whether you feel stressed or relaxed. Deep breathing only takes a few minutes and offers significant benefits, as it can decrease your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. It also can quiet the part of your nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

Deep Breathing Explained

When we breathe, we typically don’t think about it because it’s a natural process. However, we tend to take rapid and shallow breaths when under stress. Deep breathing requires inhaling slowly through your nose and allowing your lungs to fill with air, which should cause your abdomen to rise. Next, you breathe out slowly through your mouth, releasing all the air you took in. A few deep breathing repetitions can work wonders when you feel stressed. If you have health issues preventing you from deep breathing or are unsure if deep breathing would be a problem for you, consult your healthcare provider before attempting it.

Experience the Difference Deep Breathing Can Make

To understand the difference between deep and regular breathing, close your eyes and breathe normally for a few seconds. To experience deep breathing, inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your lower abdomen to rise or expand. Then, breathe out slowly through your mouth. Practice deep breathing a few times and see how it feels. You should notice the difference between deep breathing and how you normally breathe.

Hopefully, deep breathing will help you relax as you breathe more oxygen, benefiting your body and mind. Deep breathing helps calm your sympathetic nervous system, which lessens the constant fight-or-flight response, decreases anxiety and stress, and ultimately lowers cortisol.

Lifestyle Strategies and Professional Support for Cortisol Regulation

In addition to deep breathing, you can adopt other lifestyle strategies to help regulate your cortisol. Consider these four tips for lowering your cortisol:

  • Be mindful. Mindfulness works well with breathing exercises because it involves concentration and focusing on what is happening at the moment. Meditating and practicing yoga can help you develop a habit of mindfulness.
  • Exercise. Exercise or physical activity can also help lower your cortisol level. You don’t have to go to a gym to exercise. Walking is a no-cost and easy way to get moving, relieve stress, and reduce cortisol levels. Getting outside and breathing fresh air while walking is an added benefit to help you feel better.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eating well is vital when your cortisol is consistently high. You may crave high-calorie foods because excess cortisol tends to keep glucose in the bloodstream by suppressing insulin. Insulin helps get glucose into your cells and muscles, providing the energy you need. However, when insulin can’t do its job, the cells and muscles become starved for energy, causing the brain to send hunger signals that can lead to overeating.
  • Eating fewer processed foods. Processed foods may cause you to feel sluggish because of their high fat and sugar content. Try Greek yogurt to improve gut health. Consider magnesium-rich whole foods such as leafy greens and nuts. Magnesium helps produce energy and promotes muscle, nerve, and heart health. Get heart-healthy omega-3 from foods like avocado and salmon. Replace alcohol and caffeinated drinks with water.
  • Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep can be a stress reliever and also lower cortisol. Sleep-deprived people tend to have higher cortisol levels, leading to a cycle of feeling irritable, stressed, and tired. Sleep experts typically recommend at least seven hours of sleep within 24 hours.

Professional Support for Cortisol Regulation

Addressing the anxiety and stress that cause your cortisol to be high can improve your mental and physical health. You can also get treatment for anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions that may come from high cortisol levels.

Individual therapy, group therapy, and learning to care for your physical health can help you deal with issues that may be the causes of chronic anxiety and stress. An inpatient or outpatient treatment program allows you to work with therapists and other mental health specialists to identify stressors and find ways to regulate cortisol.

Help Is Available

If chronic stress is causing mental health issues and interfering with your quality of life, we may be able to help. At Restore Mental Health, our professionals can help you develop an individualized treatment plan for managing these issues and the life stressors that cause them. For more information, contact us today.