Stress, Cortisol, and Why Your Perception Matters (by Louis Carrell)

You’ve likely heard that “stress” is “bad” recently. This has become the pervasive theme not only within the health and fitness space, but even the general media. But is this truly the case? Can cortisol be useful, and if so, to what extent? In this article, I’ll tackle how stress and cortisol are intertwined, understand how all stress is not created equally, and how to manage your stress response.

The reason stress has been given such a bad reputation is the negative effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels without additional counter hormones to mitigate the adverse effects. Cortisol is released during times of stress to help us overcome the stressor at hand. In the short-term, cortisol helps liberate energy for use, increases perceived energy levels, and fights inflammation. These are all good things to help us deal with whatever the stressor at hand is. However, chronically elevated levels are associated with depression, increased in general disease risk, and increased mortality (16,21,22). The goal is to maximize the upsides while decreasing the downsides of this powerful hormone.

Cortisol is not all bad and is not always to be avoided. 

In athletes, those with heightened pre-activity cortisol levels tend to express higher levels of motivation, energy, and generally get better results (1,2). This may only be present in athletes who are excited to compete and have a generally positive outlook on the performance demands ahead of them (2). This may be due to the fact that how we perceive stress as a whole impacts what other hormones that are present with cortisol (2,3).

A stress enhancing mindset, a mindset that views stress as positive in a specific way, is associated with higher levels of anabolic hormones alongside of cortisol when exposed to stress (3). One of the key anabolic hormones that are released alongside cortisol in those with a stress enhancing mindset is DHEA-S (3). DHEA-S can counter the negative effects of elevated cortisol levels by helping provide a focused effect the increased energy cortisol provides, helps maintain cortisol’s anti-inflammatory properties, and helps improve cognitive function when high cortisol levels can impair it (3).

The hormonal profile seen with a stress enhancing mindset is associated with better stress resiliency and buffering over time (4). We want to be resilient to stress as the most stressful workouts tend to produce the best results (6). Not only do stressful workouts produce great results, but producing a favorable anabolic profile alongside cortisol can significantly enhance our results further (7). The mindset we carry into a workout can impact our response to it even if the workout itself does not change (23). So we see that a positive perception of stress, when it comes to exercise and the stress exercise causes can be very beneficial, but these same concepts could and should be applied to everyday life as well (15).

It has been seen that chronic stress in everyday life is linked to impaired exercise recovery (5). However, there’s a difference between mismanaged, chronic stress, and a healthy perception of stress. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., in her book “The Upside of Stress,” outlines that a meaningful life is a stressful life.

That is worth repeating. A meaningful life is a stressful life. 

A life without stress is not realistic, nor should it necessarily be your aim. Understandably, many may worry about a stressful life as the World Health Organization has officially included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases in May of 2019. Burnout is defined as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This definition alone showcases the importance of managing stressors. Shifting one’s perception of the stress they face in all aspects becomes important not only to exercise performance, adaptations, and recovery but to success in the workplace and life in general.

Below are some tips to assist in the reframing process of one’s perception of stress:

Adopt a growth mindset if one has a fixed mindset. Be open to change and that your perceptions of things can change. A growth mindset can lead to increased intrinsic motivation and improved outcomes for a particular goal (19,20).

When presented with stress, take a moment for self-talk. Reframe the self-talk if it is not positive. An example is telling yourself you are nervous; instead, try telling yourself you are excited. The underlying feeling of each emotion is the same, but the outcome of what actions are taken as a result of the mindset is vastly different. This can improve health and cognitive function when the actual stressor remains constant (18).

When stressed, take time to lean on others, help others, or a combination of both. Our bodies release oxytocin when under stress, and this can negate the negative effects of stress if we take advantage of it and connect with those around us (8,9,17).

For those in need of some additional assistance during the initial reframing process, the herb ashwagandha may be worth a try. Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that promotes the process of hormesis when it comes to stress. Extracts of this herb have been shown to improve ratings on a perceived stress scale, reduce cortisol levels, and improve the production of anabolic hormones such as DHEA-S and testosterone (10,11,12). Some research even suggests it may improve power output, enhance adaptations to exercise, and improve motor control (12,13,14). These effects may be attributed to its impact on enhancing one’s resiliency to stress, allowing for better recovery and reduced levels of fatigue. Two well-researched ashwagandha formulations on the market are KSM-66® and Sensoril®.

Ultimately stress and cortisol get a bad rap unnecessarily. They are tools to be harnessed and utilized when needed; managing them is the right idea here. Runaway stress and cortisol levels are detrimental to health and performance; I am not arguing against that. While we do not want to seek out stress unnecessarily, our perception of that stress is an independent risk factor for the adverse effects of stress on our health and performance (16). Since stress is inevitable, I am merely suggesting that instead of avoiding stress and cortisol spikes at all costs, to alter your perception. This shift in your perception will positively impact your career, family life, longevity, and performance as an athlete.



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