“So, errr, Sam, why is this Cortisol thing important?”
Steady on sparky, lets try and make sense of how this is switched on in the first place then, shall we?
As in all things, I try and understand how things happen, by understanding them from the ground up (otherwise I feel like a fraud when I say ‘I know about’ something – that’s just a ‘me’ thing). So lets have a quick and dirty broad stroke explanation of how our brain works (relevant to feelings and stress).
The best and most easily understandable explanation I’ve seen is from Ruby Wax’s book, ‘Sane New World’, so I intend to quote that quite a lot. Bear with me, once we know how the brain works, we can understand better what flips the cortisol switch, and what we might be able to do about it. Further reading and sources are also quoted below.
Disclaimer: all other information apart from the quotes are gathered from my research efforts on The Interwebz, and you should all know how that goes. I’ve done my best to find what looks like reputable sources.
“The pattern of how neurons and cells are wired together determines the way we think.”
― Ruby Wax, Sane New World
The brain is divided into four lobes. Each lobe has a left side and a right side. These do communicate. Also, the left-logical and right-creative thing is a bit of a myth. They both ‘interpret’ each other’s ‘stuff’. For the sake of this post, I am only going to talk about the parts that deal with emotions, memory and, dun dun dun, stress.
We are all born with a brain that has been built using our genes, which for nine months have been telling our neurons what a baby looks like in order to build it. So at the time we pop out, we’ve got an empty brain-template which now relies on external forces to fill it with stuff. The only part of the brain firing at this point, is the one that makes us breathe and our heart pump. This is our “basic” brain, the one we had when we were pond scum, zillions of years ago.
Side Note :- before a baby is born their brain is unable to process ‘external’ things. So, playing Slipknot’s ‘Chop Suey’ to your womb, or talking to it in Japanese will not be comprehended by your unborn child, in any way. Sorry. Sumimasen, you metal-head, you.
After this time, Mom is the first ‘programmer’ of our empty brain. Her actions (the ‘peek-a-boos’, ‘goo-goo’s and ‘what the fuck is that’ at first nappy-change, will lay down neural connections that stay with us forever. Safety, love or isolation and abandonment etc. And so on. However, we are not held captive by our genes in this respect. The genes we are born with CAN change (‘cliff-hanger’)
“The genes that make you shy, resilient, anxious, exuberant are shaped by Maternal behaviour. If maternal behaviour changes, the genes change.”
― Ruby Wax, Sane New World
Short Management Summary, then:
Post pond-scum brain – Breathing, Heartbeat
400,000,000 year old brain – kill it, eat it, or f*** it
250,000,000 year old brain – bonding with offspring (i.e. not killing or eating it)
500,000 year old brain – language, self-regulation, rational, logical thought, morality
So here we are. We’re getting to it, honestly.
Modern anxiety, stress, bipolarity, autism, et al did not exist zillions of years ago. Everything was as it was designed to be – a perfect fit for whatever our situation was back then (and we only had a few situations to deal with in those days – staying alive and multiplying; bring on the apocalypse, I say). If there was a sabretooth, ON with the adrenalin and cortisol and kill it, or run away. Easy pease. Chemicals back to normal.
Today, right this second, we STILL have, and operate the sabretooth response: fight or flight.
This part of our brain is NOT clever. It is unable to distinguish between ‘oh, there’s a sabretooth tiger’ and – ‘everyone hates me’, ‘how am I going to pay my bills’ or ‘how can I save the whales’ thoughts. And so……ON with the adrenalin and cortisol.
We expose ourselves to ALL of today’s modern planetary crises (Daily Mail, Facebook posts, the badger crisis in outer Mongolia, Donald Trumps hair). Since we probably can’t kill or run away from these modern crises, the cortisol and adrenalin hangs around. Honestly, my adrenal gland must look like Jason Momoa’s left arse cheek.
“The thing that helped us survive in our past (our alarm system) now gives us nervous breakdowns. Someone said ‘Man was built for survival, not happiness’. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but our pets are happier than us.”
― Ruby Wax, Sane New World
Prolonged and sustained exposure to in particular, stuff we probably can’t do anything about is, basically, killing us.
Adrenalin (aka Epinephrine)– The body’s activator. Gets us set up for for fight or flight, redirecting blood from organs to muscles (to fight or run), increases heart rate, increases breathing rate, switches off the ‘I need to sleep now’ instinct (which is how you can’t sleep when you’re stressed). Dilates the pupils (so you can see your sabretooth in the dark). Maximises our blood glucose (energy).
Prolonged Adrenalin/Epinephrine Exposure: rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, anxiety, weight loss, excessive sweating and palpitations, heart-attack.
Cortisol – The body’s reactor. Suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from sabretooth injuries (or injuries resulting from the Badger Crisis in Outer Mongolia) and stimulates a part of your brain called the Amygdala – so you stay vigilant. Cortisol also suppresses activity in your hippocampus (where your memories are), so that you ONLY think of the last time you were attacked by your mortgage. Additionally, Cortisol stops your digestion and the urge to have sex (which, really, you cant do while you’re worrying about the sabretooth if we’re all honest, right?).
Prolonged Cortisol Exposure: permanent memory loss, rapid weight gain mainly in the face, chest and abdomen contrasted with slender arms and legs, a flushed and round face, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks), muscle weakness, mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression or irritability, increased thirst and frequency of urination, lack of sex drive and, in women, periods can become irregular, less frequent or stop altogether.
“Inadvertently, stress will destroy you both mentally and physically unless you change the way you think about it and relate to it.”
― Ruby Wax, Sane New World
“So, errr, Sam. What can I do about it?”
To prevent our old prehistoric brain from saying “SABRETOOTH!” there are some things you can do to stop the caveman from kicking off every time we see an abused puppy on the side of a cornflakes box. I’m writing this to myself, by the way, since, you know, Jason Momoa’s arse cheek. I’m the worst for crying about the badgers and puppies.
- Recognise and accept that there ARE things we can do nothing about, whether we like it or not, and there will always be. (e.g. reading about the Badger Crisis in Outer Mongolia), feeling bad about the badgers is really not helping the badgers. Unless you’ve already bought a tent and a helmet light, just acknowledge, every day. Ya can’t help ALL the badgers.
- Limit our exposure to things we can do nothing about. Look, if you’re subscribed to the Badger Crisis and that’s the first thing you see when you look at your screen in the morning, your brain is going to be hollering “SABRETOOOOOOTH!” before you’ve even brushed your teeth. If you have friends that are in a constant state of drama and never seem to do anything about it, adjust your relationship. You could say something like “well, tell me how you are going to fix this, and then maybe I might be able to help”.
- Think. It. Through. – Mental observation and focus. When a brown envelope hits our doormat, we are all tempted to run away from it. Yeah baby, that too generates a sabretooth reaction. I had a brown envelope on my desk for a week before I decided to open it, then discovered it was a tax rebate. What a waste of cortisol. Fancy dilating my pupils and increasing my heart rate over a brown envelope. If you can’t pay your bills this month, think about it logically, phone them, tell them what you can do and then make a plan. Then congratulate yourself.
- Learn to limit your reaction. This is particularly difficult. Look at this paragraph:
“Oh, I might have a headache coming. Yep I’ve got a headache. Now it’s getting worse. Jesus its splitting. Now if it gets any worse I’m not going to be able to switch the light on to get ready for work. It won’t go away. Why won’t it go away? Why have I got a headache in the first place? Now I have to run for the bus. Now I’m going to be late for work. This headache is making me feel sick. Oh god I’ve got that meeting at nine I’m never going to get through that with this pain. The boss will think I’m in a mood, then I’ll get a talking to and then I’ll get stressed and cry on the way home and and and and then I’ll have to get another job and I’m too old for this and I’ll never work again and I’ll lose my house and be on the street and my cat will die and I will get run over by a bus”
At what point in that paragraph do the thoughts become pointless? Do any of those statements make the pain go away?
With a very short meditation (but with permanent daily practice), we can learn to NOTICE “I’ve got a headache” and NOT spiral off into a ridiculous glob of despair until we’ve well and truly pulled the sabretooth’s tail one too many times. And died of a heart attack.
If you’ve read this far (you BETTER have, took me all day to write this!), I can reward you with a final related ‘carry-on’ moment: I was so engrossed in finishing this article about mindfulness, that I forgot I had a bath running and over-filled it. Yep, we’ve all got a lot of noticing to do.
This, as with most things in my blog, can be applied to how we feel about ourselves. So hey, I think we should lighten up a bit by noticing what IS great/funny/gorgeous. You pick.
Further reading, sources:
- Maternal care effects on the hippocampal transcriptome and anxiety-mediated behaviors in the offspring that are reversible in adulthood
- Society for Endocrinology (Hormones)
- US National Library of Medicine (Epinephrine)
And, of course: