In the short run, cortisol secretion has many benefits. It prepares you for physical and emotional challenges, generates bursts of energy in the face of trauma, and provides surges of immune activity when you’re confronted with infectious diseases. Following this cortisol-induced activation state, your body goes through a necessary relaxation response.
Cortisol production becomes problematic when you’re exposed to continuous or prolonged stress, which results in the continuous production of cortisol.
In other words, in the short term, an increase in cortisol secretion may aid in survival, but long-term elevations may do the opposite.
Stress, the Brain, and Depression
Ongoing stress means that stress hormones are operating throughout the day for most of the day. This is exhausting to the body and may cause the neurotransmitters in your brain like serotonin—the “feel good” chemical that appears to influence mood, appetite, and sleep, among other things—to stop functioning correctly, potentially leading to depression.
In people who are not depressed, the level of cortisol in the bloodstream peaks in the morning then decreases as the day progresses. However, in roughly half of the people who live with depression, cortisol peaks earlier in the morning and does not level off or decrease in the afternoon or evening.
- Relax: Make sure you take some time every day, even if it’s just a few minutes, to completely relax your body and your mind.
- Meditation: Using meditation has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost your mood, and even help physical ailments like headaches.
- Get a massage: Massage has proven benefits to relieve stress, anxiety, and tension.
- Try art therapy: Coloring, painting, drawing, or photography—whatever your pick to engage your inner artist—can help drive away stress.
- Keep a journal: Giving yourself a place to let it all out can be not only freeing, but it can also help you deal with stress you may not have even realized you had.
- Do something you love every day: Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, being able to read the next chapter of that novel you’re absorbed in or playing your guitar will help you unwind.
- Exercise: While it has been clearly demonstrated that physical exercise boosts mood, many studies have also shown that it increases serotonin levels in the brain.
- Sleep well: Getting enough sleep and keeping a regular sleep pattern (getting up and going to bed at the same time) also helps stave off depression and improve mood.
- Increase light exposure: Sunlight is preferable, though getting light by way of a therapy light can also help.
Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which in turn is connected with depression as well as other serious conditions such as metabolic syndrome, heart disease, or stroke.