Recently, I adopted a feral dog. His new name is Lucien. He was in such a severe state of stress and anxiety that he paced the house constantly, would run under the bed at the slightest noise, and didn’t know how to relax. He had to be completely exhausted in order to fall asleep. Thankfully, I know that while stress can be induced by emotional trauma, the body has a wiring system that allows the release of pressure from that cortisol rush. I purchased him an anxiety vest. The vest creates a consistent pressure, equivalent to a firm hug. Scientifically, gentle, persistent pressure releases chemicals called endorphins that promote a sense of well-being. 

That night, Lucien slept a full night for the first time. Maybe in his adult life. No pacing, no reacting and running underneath the bed with every sound he heard. He still had all of his emotional trauma, but because of the vest his body mechanism was switched into a state of calm. This example is no different than you getting a hug or utilizing the practices I’ll share below to help your body feel well by disrupting the cortisol overload.

Signs you have high cortisol levels:

  • Feeling tired but wired
  • Difficulty winding down or getting a second wind at night
  • “Foggy,” out-of-focus brain
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Premature aging (even women in their 30s who have high levels of stress age, on average, 10+ years faster than their calmer counterparts)
  • ADHD, ADD
  • Depression—burning through your happy chemicals
  • Stomach problems—damage in the the lining of your gut
  • Low sex drive 
  • Hormonal imbalance (OB/GYN Dr. Sara Gottfried reported that approximately 91 percent of her patients with hormonal problems had overactive cortisol)

The good news is that there are ways to lower your cortisol levels. Here are 5 things that you can control:

1. Manage the amount of stress in your life and your reaction to it. 

Inherently, stress is good. It helps build a stronger you and gives you an energy burst when you need it. But too much of anything can be a bad thing. If your entire life is high stress, your body will constantly pump out cortisol and eventually break down. Manage your stress by eating right (more on that below), getting enough sleep, and making time to do things that help you relax, like yoga, meditation, or playing an instrument. In a fascinating twist, studies have shown that how you relate to stress dramatically impacts its affect on your overall well-being. In other words, If you perceive stress as a positive motivator instead of something to avoid, it may not be as harmful to you. (Here’s a TedTalk on the topic.)

2. Increase your oxytocin. 

Oxytocin is a hormone we naturally produce, and it is the kryptonite of cortisol. It can help you return to a balanced, “chill,” and harmonious state with a mind and mood that are clear, focused, happy, and productive.

Scientists sometimes call oxytocin the “cuddle hormone.” This is because its levels rise when we hug, touch, or sit close to someone else. Yes, you can increase your oxytocin levels by getting lots of hugs! You probably always knew that hugs made you happier—now you now why.

Quarantining without a cuddle buddy? If you have a pet, spend some extra time with them. When you hug and play with your pet, it increases both of your oxytocin levels, according to Bark. I routinely stop what I am doing when I feel stressed and hug one of my dogs. They are thrilled to get the attention! And, if you’re feeling adventurous, there is also an adult version of the anxiety vest

Another way to increase your oxytocin level is listening to music that makes you feel good. I love asking Alexa to “play feel good music,” and she always comes up with great playlists. If you have a Smart TV, just open up YouTube and choose any stress relieving playlist and let it run in the background while you work. I have been using YouTube as a playlist library for 3 years, and it never fails.

3. Eat foods that lower your cortisol levels.

Eat foods like dark chocolate, avocados, walnuts, watermelon, figs, and spinach. And have a cup of green tea. Bonus: according to NetMeds, these foods can also increase sexual desire. If you have a stressful life (who doesn’t?), plan ahead and incorporate these foods into your shopping routine. Check out our article on Mood Food: Recipes to Help Manage Anxiety for terrific, easy recipes that use the ingredients above.

4. Get up and move.

Often when we are stressed, we are “locked” into our own mind, trying to figure out a way to avoid or get out of a given situation. Like a rat on a wheel, we are going in circles, which only increases our stress level and lowers our decision-making ability. Get up and walk around the block. It literally will clear your head. Try a 7-minute yoga routine on YouTube or the Yoga-Go app. Yoga, brisk-walking, and running actually make you happier. And exercise-induced oxytocin surges result in improved social bonding, so you can hop on your next Zoom call and feel relaxed and connected.

5. Finally, just breathe!

Take a long, deep breath in and out with your eyes closed. Feel your diaphragm expand and release. A great tip is to focus more on your outgoing breath and push all the air out as much as you can. What you are doing is releasing old stale air in your lungs, and this helps invigorate your body with new fresh air. You should feel a sense of calm and focus. Another easy but powerful technique to settle the mind, body, and emotions is alternate nostril breathing. It links your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-relax) branches of the nervous system. Follow these simple instructions. Try starting with 3 minutes in the morning and in the evening. You will be amazed at how relaxed you feel.

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