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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

July 21, 2016       

Is the Stress Hormone Good or Bad?
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

You may have heard of the stress hormone and the role that increased levels of cortisol can play in negative emotions and health consequences such as heart disease. However, when it comes to the human body nothing is ever simple. We often hear about something being good or bad for us and then finding out the opposite is true.

The problem is that most things are neither good nor bad but have the potential to be good or bad for us. It depends. Our bodies need to be in a state of homeostasis which another word for balance. Good examples of homeostasis are body temperature and blood sugar—both need to be in a certain healthy range, too high or too low can be a problem.

That is what the findings are showing for cortisol, as well, which makes sense because why would a hormone naturally occur in the body if it didn't have a purpose? Cortisol in a healthy range and under the right circumstances actually helps us to cope with stress by increasing activity level, alertness, and relaxation and decreasing feelings of tension and anxiety (Hoyt, et al., 2016). However, chronic stress can keep cortisol in an unhealthy range for too long which can cause a build-up of abdominal fat contributing to heart disease, dementia, diabetes and other illnesses (Buckingham, 2007).

How to keep cortisol at healthy levels

1) Don't worry about minor stressors. Stress is a fact of daily life and our system is able to handle it. Cortisol increases in the system to help us cope with stress.

2) Help the body maintain balance. By engaging in daily relaxation, meditation, and/or exercise you help your body stay in balance when you are under stress. During times of stress people are less likely to take care of themselves in this way but that is when you need it the most. It is best to develop the habit of engaging in these activities so that when you are chronically stressed you are more likely to continue your practice.

Read more: A Brief Primer On the Biology of Stress and How CBT Can Help

Buckingham, J.C. (2007). Glucocorticoids, Role in Stress. In Stress Science: Neuroendocrinology edited by Fink, G. Elsevier, San Diego, CA.

Hoyt, L.T., Zeiders, K.H., Ehrlich, K.B. and Adam, E.K. (2016). Positive Upshots of Cortisol in Everyday Life. Emotion, 16, 431–435. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000174

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