You may be familiar with the story of how salmon, after living most of their adult lives roaming ocean waters, return to the rivers in which they were born and swim upstream to spawn, only to die. “I used to think this was a terribly romantic story, these fish giving their all for their offspring,” says Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Psychology. “And then I learned the ugly story of why salmon die: It’s death by cortisol.” Cortisol, a hormone in animals and humans that’s released by the adrenal glands during times of stress, is poured out in large amounts by salmon swimming upstream; in the end, their systems are so damaged by the stuff that they die of massive infection.
A life spent metaphorically swimming upstream can have the same effect on humans, says Dr. McKee. “Too much prolonged stress makes you prone to inflammation, infection and disease,” he says.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Some stress, and a little cortisol, is actually a good thing for many of us: Part of the “fight-or-flight” mechanism, cortisol’s release in an emergency can help you react better, finish off that 5K race with a burst of speed or make a deadline. However, when the body is continually exposed to cortisol, you actually build up a resistance to it, Dr. McKee says. As more and more cortisol is required to produce an effect on you, its impact worsens. Among other things, cortisol can suppress your immune system, exposing you to more infections, and raise your blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which contribute to heart disease and diabetes. Think about it in terms of a morning coffee habit: One or two cups may get you going and make you feel sharp, but push that to three or four and you start feeling jittery and unwell. Plus, when your body is in “fight-or-flight” mode, cortisol is not the only substance released. The sympathetic nervous system releases additional compounds that have inflammatory effects; inflammation, in turn, damages the cells lining your arteries, or endothelium.
Take It Down a Notch
Critical to breaking the stress cycle is finding time to relax — meaning, in addition to just doing stuff you enjoy, engaging in techniques meant to lower your stress levels. What you are actually doing when you relax is calming your sympathetic nervous system and reducing the negative impact of the “fight-or-flight” response on your body — that is, decreasing the output of cortisol as well as the production of those inflammatory compounds that damage the endothelium. These relaxation techniques, such as physical exercise, need to be practiced regularly in order for you to reap the greatest benefits. In engaging in them, you in fact train (or retrain) your body on how to react to mental stresses throughout the day. Regular relaxation, Dr. McKee says, “changes the brain in significant ways; areas that have to do with calm and relaxation are altered” — for instance, the pathways that carry signals to and from your brain are rerouted so the message about a stressful event goes to an “I can deal with this” place instead of one that responds with “I have to fly off the handle about this.”
Book It, Dano
In our success-driven, goal-oriented society, it can be hard to step back from the things that keep us wound up, especially for high achievers. Can’t find time for that yoga class? Too many deadlines to go for a walk? Take a look at where your health falls in your priorities, Dr. McKee advises. “You have to acknowledge that [taking] the time to take care of yourself now is important to succeeding in the future.” The first step is to book time for both exercise and relaxation. “You have to put it in your schedule. Spontaneous free time? It will never happen. There’s always something,” Dr. McKee says. Enter “me” time” (maybe under the official-looking abbreviation “PFT” — personal free time) as a recurring appointment in your calendar, and don’t let anything bump it.
Once you’ve booked that time, what should you do with it? Something that gets you to breathe — slowly. “From the beginning of time,” Dr. McKee says, “breathing has been part of relaxation exercises.” Whether you try yoga, meditation or focused breathing, slowly drawing in and releasing your breath — and concentrating on that act as you do it — slows your heart rate, clears your mind and enables you to defuse tension.
A simple way to put this into practice: Hourly or more often, whenever you’re stressed or at a certain cue, pause, take a slow, deep breath and say something meaningful to yourself. “Doing this multiple times a day keeps stress from building up and over time can reset your stress levels to the point it won’t be damaging to your system,” Dr. McKee says.
Work It Out
In addition to practicing relaxation exercises, be sure to get physical exercise as well. Anxiety and depression are risk factors for heart disease, and both are reduced through regular physical exercise. In fact, Dr. McKee says, the connection between depression and heart disease seems to be largely attributable to a sedentary lifestyle, and “as soon you start exercising, that risk factor goes way down.”