Defeating Cortisol Resistance With Travel

iStock_000019320382SmallThings have been a little out of control. I’m not going to say the sky is falling or anything like that, but as seems to be the constant case, we are busy.

My first semester of grad school comes to a close this week with finals and papers and presentations that have been causing me to lose sleep. When you work a full-time job (read 50+ hours a week), you end up staying awake until midnight and getting up around 4 a.m. to squeeze in the readings and writings necessary for a good grade before and after hours.

That 50+ hours of work is also contributing to the stress, with lots of deadline projects and events this time of year. I’m losing patience, I’m having a hard time being pleasant, and I’m snapping at people I wouldn’t normally snap at when I feel they’re adding to my stress level. This could be because of the lack of sleep. I can’t function without a solid eight of sleep, and this is especially true when my brain is working at full capacity the hours I’m up. Such is currently the case.

The husband has a lot going on at his work too–some good conversations indicating he is moving forward and that people are taking note, and some good opportunities to network and interact with those in positions to make things happen. This also means travel, and although his absence means I can fully concentrate on my studies and work, I also miss him and don’t have my emotional support system this week.

I know we do this to ourselves. I feel like our normal response to people when they ask ‘how are you doing?’ is always ‘fine, busy, you know.’ Why is that? Why do we always have to be so busy?

Being stressed and being busy can be really harmful to your health. Studies have shown that most disease states are a result of some form of stress. The good news is that your body is able to respond to stress, and one way it does so is to release cortisol into the blood stream, which aids in anti-inflammation and anti-stress.

The issue being studied by researchers is a relatively recent phenomenon known as prolonged cortisol resistance. Because we are often in a heightened and long-term state of stress, our bodies have actually started to become immune to the effects of cortisol. This is not good. Cortisol is our body’s way of de-stressing after moments of alarm or anticipation.

These situations are not always bad–stress in small doses can be good as it elevates blood pressure, heightens awareness and enables us to quickly respond to a situation. The issue is that many of us are living in constant stress, which is hard on our bodies and exhausting, and because of the duration of our stress, we are not responding to our natural de-stressors as quickly or efficiently as we should.

We can, of course, do something about this. We can reduce or eliminate stress in our lives and remove ourselves from the heightened state that leads us to exhaustion and eventual collapse. For most people, this is possible. We can shoot for ‘good’ instead of ‘perfect.’ We can disconnect from work when we are at home and pick up where we left off in the morning. We can make some time to exercise and improve our physical health, which can ultimately affect our mental health.

The list goes on.

It is quite possible I’m building up cortisol resistance. When things get really busy, it is very hard for me to turn it off and focus on something else. It’s hard for me to sleep through the night, and it’s hard for me to stop thinking about the lists and lists of things I need to do in my personal and professional life.

That’s why I love to travel. Traveling is how I reduce stress. It’s one of the few ways I’m able to completely separate myself from work, school, etc. I try not to take any phones, computers, etc. with me when I travel, instead emailing a quick note to family and friends from an Internet cafe or hotel business center when I get to my destination to let them know I safely arrived,  and then reconnecting with them after I arrive back home. It’s amazing what you can see and experience when you’re living in the moment and not trying to capture it on your phone or trying to look up the next thing to do.

Traveling allows me to escape, recharge, refresh and refocus. It allows me to relax.

Of course it’s not financially possible for me to hit the road every time things get stressful. Instead, I need to find a way to achieve that effect from wherever I am. Maybe re-reading some journal entries, flipping through some pictures, chatting with others who were with me for the experience or even just sitting quietly and reflecting on moments from those trips. The beauty with travel is that you take your memories of your adventures with you wherever you are, and I need to keep that in mind.

It’s so important to manage your stress, for both short- and long-term health. I need to do a better job with mine. It’s ok to be busy sometimes, but it’s also ok to relax.

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