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You’ve probably heard about cortisol being the stress hormone and the main player in the ‘fight or flight’ response. When our body feels under threat, the adrenal glands release a spike in cortisol to give us the energy to face or fight our ‘predator’ (in this modern age those threats are typically not life-threatening) or run away.

Stress is not the only reason your body releases cortisol, the levels are constantly going up and down according to what your brain feels it needs. For example it starts to increase during the night (around 2 or 3am), peaking around 8 or 9am and gradually decreasing during the day, until it tops itself up again while you sleep.

Cortisol has been described as the “water of life”, as it binds to every cell in your body making it involved in virtually every system in the body.

Main Cortisol Functions

  • Prepares the body to deal with stress or danger.

  • Helps control blood sugar and blood pressure.

  • Regulates how the body uses food and gets energy—your metabolism.

  • Plays a role in helping the brain form memories.

  • Helps the body recognise when it is time to sleep and when to wake up.

Problems begin when acute stress is triggered by societal or mental stressors rather than physical stressors, for example money worries, traffic jams, work deadlines or social media. Your body is prepared to act, but there’s not much it can do to get away from the perceived threat.

Your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated, and your body is in overdrive in preparation, but there’s no tangible predator to fend off, and you’re left depleted. While fight or flight is activated, all of your energy is directed towards the threat, and many other bodily functions that are nonessential at the moment are slowed or halted.

When we experience this regularly the stress response can turn into chronic stress. Fight or flight is a process that’s meant to be fleeting: After escaping or dealing with the situation, the body is supposed to return to its normal state. Cortisol and other hormone levels, blood pressure, and heart rate are all supposed to go back to a resting state, and systems like digestion that were not essential for survival at the time get back to work.

Chronic stress is when your fight or flight response gets activated too often or stays on for too long. The wear and tear that chronic stress puts on your body is linked with numerous mental and physical health issues, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Digestive issues

  • Headaches

  • Heart problems

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Gaining weight

  • Problems with memory and concentration

How can you help your stress?

  • Get plenty of sleep.

  • Do things you enjoy. Whether it’s art, playing with your pet or dancing, releasing the feel-good hormones is a good counterbalance to the stress response.

  • Get outside. Time in nature helps everything. Don’t wait for holidays, look at a tree, a body of water or the blue sky, even a pot plant!

  • Try meditation and breathing exercises.

  • Exercise.

  • Reach out for social support.

  • Seek professional help. If you’re having trouble getting your stress under control, working with a psychologist can help you identify what is causing your stress and develop actionable, stress-reducing strategies.

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