With long-term overstimulation, cortisol
causes a wide range of negative effects. It
causes deposition of fat in the stomach and
face and promotes the breakdown of muscle,
bone, and connective tissue to create glucose.
Long-term overstimulation can therefore
cause a reduction in body muscle mass—not
something Craig wants with the physical
demands of playing baseball and moving crates
of supplies at the hardware store.
Various scientific studies have shown that
chronic stress can also increase the risk of
high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and
elevated lipid levels. Stress also impairs
memory and interferes with learning. If Craig
waits until the night before an exam to start
studying, this strategy can be doubly coun-
terproductive—it leaves him with less time to
study, and the stress of preparing at the last
minute makes it more difficult for him to learn.
Chronic stress can even cause damage to an
area of the brain called the hippocampus that
is important for memory—another outcome
that Craig definitely wants to avoid.
There are other triggers, which can be con-
trolled. For example, consumption of caffeine
has been found to increase cortisol secretion.
Also, a lack of adequate sleep can cause an
increase in cortisol. Another trigger is a drop
in body temperature, which can lead to a
secretion of cortisol and a suppression of the
“So what do I do?” Craig asks. As usual,
his mother tells him. “I’ve provided you with a
lot of information. Sort through it, make deci-
sions, and I will support you.”
Craig decides that he would start with easy
changes: He would try cutting back on coffee,
getting adequate sleep, and bundling up when
it is cold—all steps that can help reduce his
cortisol secretion. He also decides to include
more omega- 3 fatty acids in his diet, which
are abundant in many kinds of fish and nuts,
because these fatty acids can inhibit CRH
He also tries a meditation class at the local
yoga studio. Scientists found that the practice
of meditation can reduce the secretion of
CRH from the hypothalamus, reducing stress.
Other researchers discovered that when practiced over long periods of time, meditation
improves memory and increases the amount
of gray matter in some areas of the brain.
Because physical exercise can be a great
de-stressor, Craig decides to increase the
number of times per week that he performs
noncompetitive physical activity. Exercise
itself is a stress to the body, causing a short-term elevation of cortisol, but it also has
several health benefits that reduce stress after
the exercise is complete. These health benefits
include feeling more relaxed, elevating one’s
mood, and improving one’s quality of sleep.
Three weeks later, when his big game
arrives, Craig takes his place at home plate,
choking up a little on the bat, feeling rested
and full of energy and confident that whatever
happens, he will have done his best.
The first pitch flies past him in the strike
zone before he can react. Strike one. The
next pitch is a ball, low and outside. The next
pitch is another fastball and he swings hard
and misses. Strike two. Three weeks ago, he
would be panicking. But today, he glances up
at the bleachers, checks on the college scout
in the fifth row, and then stares out at the
He sees the ball spinning toward him, as if
in slow motion, and he digs the balls of his
feet into the dirt. He swings the bat with a
concentrated burst of power and swat! The
ball soars past the fence, he jogs around the
bases, and as he passes third, he sees the
scout give him a thumbs-up sign. Craig feels a
rush of relief, and then he experiences the
glimmer of a new and welcome kind of
stress—he wonders what he is going to
choose as a major in college.
Bergland, C. Cortisol: Why “The Stress Hormone”
Is Public Enemy No. 1. Psychology Today, Jan 22,
hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1 [accessed Feb
Jayson, S. Teens Feeling Stressed, and Many
Not Managing It Well. USA Today, Feb 11,
/5266739/ [accessed Feb 2017].
John P. Roche is an author and science writer who
lives in Massachusetts. This is his first article in
Chronic stress can cause damage to an area of
the brain called the hippocampus (shown here in
red), which is important for memory.
Teens and Stress
According to a survey published in February 2014 by
the American Psychological Association, 30% of
teens said they felt depressed or sad
because of stress. Also, 36% of them reported
feeling tired, and 23% of them reported skipping a
meal due to stress. Nearly one in five teens
said that when they do not get enough
sleep, they are more stressed.
SOURCE: AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION SURVEY SHOWS TEEN STRESS
RIVALS THAT OF ADULTS (PRESS RELEASE). FEB 11, 2014: http://www.apa.org/news/
press/releases/2014/02/ teen-stress.aspx [accessed Feb 2017].