Lesson #14: The Cortisol Curse

My older sister, who lives on the other side of the country, has a rough time hearing about all the changes that my parents are experiencing. She’s grateful they are being well cared for, but finds it emotionally distressing to follow their journey from afar. In the past few years, she has made the trip home as often as possible, and for as long as she can. She’s here for a month now, staying with Mom and Dad and offering me some respite.

Within a week of her arrival, I noticed that my stress levels had lessened considerably, particularly in the evenings. Duh! With her staying at the family home, I can finally relax and not jump out of my skin every time the phone rings. Knowing that someone is on site is a HUGE relief.

At around the same time, I watched a video by Alzheimer’s expert Teepa Snow and learned that caregivers can increase their own chance of dementia by up to 400%, due to the stress involved in caring for a loved one. This didn’t surprise me, but it did make me sit up a little straighter. Are we in danger of damaging ourselves, and what can we do to minimize this damage?

I’ve often caught myself in the act of worrying. A stressful thought will arise, and my mind will chase it. What if Dad goes out late at night and Mom doesn’t hear him leave the house? What if Mom falls and Dad doesn’t hear her calling? What if someone tries to take advantage of them? What if Dad has a stroke and Mom forgets how to use the phone? What if the house catches on fire and neither of them smell the smoke and the smoke alarms fail? What if aliens snatch them from their beds in the middle of the night? My imagination is extremely fertile, and the “what if” scenarios that I routinely conjure are the stuff of fiction and movies and countless other creative dramas.

The good news is, you can change it…
If you can catch yourself worrying, you can train yourself to worry less. It takes practise, but (as I can now testify) it works. By stopping whatever I’m doing (even if it’s just sitting there worrying, I have to physically shake my head or stand up or somehow alert my body that I’m uncomfortable), I then take three deep breaths, after which my mind and body align and a sense of reason returns. It’s not as efficient as an on-off switch, but it’s close enough. And it can be done by:
– recognizing that you are creating a fictional scenario
– reminding yourself that the future is unpredictable
– realizing that there’s nothing to be done in the present moment

The cortisol curse is alive and kicking.
Now that science has the technology to observe the brain’s functions more accurately, we are learning a ton of useful information about the interaction between brain and body. We know, for example, that large and/or sustained amounts of cortisol can do significant damage to our health:

Chronic stress leads to chronically high levels of cortisol in your body. This creates a need for higher levels of other hormones (e.g. thyroid, insulin, estrogen and testosterone) in order to do the same job. Chronic high concentration of cortisol is toxic to brain cells and can cause short-term memory loss. A lifetime of high cortisol levels may be a primary contributor to Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia. High cortisol is also a primary cause of osteoporosis.”

Remember that friend you wanted to slap when she told you to relax? Well, she was right. Do whatever it takes to relax when you can. I’m so incredibly grateful that I decided to get down on the floor and learn yoga. Yoga is a gift to yourself, a gift to your aging body, and a gift to your breathing. Why didn’t I start yoga years ago? I could kick myself! (Thanks to yoga, I can now.)

I can’t claim much success with meditation, but I still try most days. And when I sit and cross my legs with the intent to meditate, I find my body responding with a sigh of relief. My body likes to sit still now; I just need to keep my mind from doing somersaults and jumping jacks.

Let it all hang out.
We shouldn’t be afraid of emotions, and yet society, establishments and even some cultures can inhibit the best of us from being openly emotional. There’s nothing wrong with big emotions, though, and being OK with sharing positive and negative emotions is a sign of wisdom and maturity.

Share your sorrow, share your pain, share your joyful moments and release your stress. Keeping things in, hanging onto secrets, repressing emotions…. these are all recipes for disaster. If you don’t have a talk buddy in your inner circle, maybe you can find one on the Internet. Join a support group, share with other caregivers, come up with a plan…. do whatever it takes, because if you’re like most compassionate people, you rarely put yourself first.

“Love yourself first, and everything else falls in line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.”
Lucille Ball, Actor



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