Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD )– High Cortisol and How To Heal From It
by Eileen Nauman, DHM (UK)
Copyright 2009 Eileen Nauman
All Rights Reserved
SYMPTOMS OF HIGH CORTISOL
Do you have PTSD? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. No? You don’t think so? Think again. You don’t have to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to get PTSD. You can get it in your childhood–from a trauma of any kind. And why should we care about high cortisol level in our bloodstream that is caused by PTSD? The adrenals manufacture adrenaline and cortisol. Anyone who has gone to war (where it was a family war for eighteen years or being in the military or coming from a ghetto neighborhood, or anything you define as unsafe or threatening….) the final outcome is the SAME: High cortisol levels.
Here is a good illustration of the adrenals, which sit atop our kidneys. The Cortisol and adrenaline are shot into our blood stream and once the threat is over, the Pituitary gland sends out other hormones to stop these adrenal hormones from being poured into our bloodstream. In normal people, this happens. But for those of us who have PTSD, we have high cortisol levels and they aren’t shut “off” by the Pituitary gland. The good news is: this can be fixed and I’ll blog on the ways in later parts of this series on High Cortisol.
With this ‘haze’ of hormone that is always high and active in your bloodstream (and you won’t know it until you test for it….), it creates a nightmare existence for you. It is an emotional haze, too. It’s not in your head, it’s zeroed in and targets our entire emotional structure. And unless the person is on top of this uncontrollable anxiety emotional state, they live a life in Hell. And so do the people who are associated with this person. Fortunately, it can be corrected and cured. That’s the good news.
Mars rules the Adrenal glands. It is our “fight or flight” glands that sit atop our kidneys. When we feel threatened and unsafe, our cortisol is the first thing to shoot into our blood stream. Then, if we feel violence is going to happen to us, here comes the adrenaline. When the threat or sense of unsafeness is no longer there, the adrenals stop putting these hormones out into our bloodstream and your sense of safety returns to normal. You now feel safe and unthreatened. You are at peace. The anxiety is gone.
That works for some of the population. But there are many of us “out there” where this does not occur. And before I go into all the reasons why this is so, I feel it’s more important to share the symptoms of high cortisol levels that does not recede and turn off after an incident/trauma that we experience.
WHAT IS CORTISOL?
Cortisol is a hormone that is supposed to help us meet the daily stress in our lives. It converts protein into energy. It releases glycogen (sugar) and counteracts inflammation. For a short time, Cortisol is our stress protector. BUT, if the cortisol does not subside and return to normal levels within us, then it throws us into a nightmare world where we may feel like there is this angry, anxious, threatened and feeling unsafe stranger living within us.
And all the while this emotional storm is going on inside us, we struggle mightily to maintain a societal face to the outside world that is acceptable. Quite literally, we lead two lives. The inner life is one of always feeling threatened in large and small ways, feeling unprotected, vulnerable, unable to defend ourselves, feeling anxious, tense and always ‘on guard.’
The outer ‘mask’ we wear is trying to react normally to people and our environment regardless of how we feel internally. This is a terrible way to live, but it is the inner life of a person is struggling with high cortisol levels. It’s a terrible curse that has fall out on every level of ourselves: mentally, emotionally and physically.
HIGH CORTISOL STAGES
Our first stage occurs when we feel threatened in some way (trauma, heat, cold, chemical irritation, infection, stress, violence, feeling unsafe, threatened, security (money, emotional) is not there, unprotected, ect. ) the endocrine system kicks in and cortisol is released. Our heart beats faster, our blood pressure arises and our pupils dilate. This is the reaction stage to threat.
Our second stage is Adaptation. This is the stage were we are living beneath CHRONIC, unrelieved stress. The stress trigger might be your job, your spouse, caregiving, or a hundred other stresses defined by you. The worst case scenario is that you had a dysfunctional childhood where this sense of no protection, feeling vulnerable and in danger, created the continuous high cortisol levels in your bloodstream. What happens is the adrenal glands have enlarged and released large quantities of adrenal cortical hormones, the symptoms MAY disappear and we feel okay. We have energy, and are able to function in the presence of the stress that we’re under. We may go years or decades in this stage. Eventually, our chronic stress catches up with us and then we “cascade” and go into the last stage.
The last stage is Exhaustion and this is where the ‘cascade effect’ of symptoms occur. The body’s reserves have been under attack for years or decades. There may be lost nutrition as a result. Our resilience to deal with this chronic stress depletes our minerals and nutrition. There may be physical collapse, you may suffer from an emotional breakdown, become dysfunctional and/or experience an organ or body system failure, such as a heart attack or stroke. The emotional nightmare world that the high cortisol person is trapped within can bring them to a psychiatrist and mood altering or controlling drugs are used to ‘fix it,’ which of course all it does is suppress the real problem and fixes nothing in the long term. This is not the answer. The good news is that all of this can be stopped. And we can return to being a ‘normal’ human being.
WHAT DOES HIGH CORTISOL DO TO US?
First of all chronic stress or one, sudden trauma, can create the high cortisol levels situation. What is high stress for me won’t be for you, so you can’t say that “this” or “that” will trigger the cortisol. Cortisol has a role in regulating blood sugar, energy production, inflammation, supporting the immune system and in healing. Every human responds to stress differently.
Let’s look at some triggers and see if you find yourself in here: lack of sleep, a demanding boss, threat of losing your job, lost your job, relationship strains, divorce, conflicts with neighbors, death or illness in your family, being a caregiver, yo-yo dieting, having to move from your home, losing your home, foreclosure worries, child worries, child illness, fighting for a parking space, caught in slow moving traffic, unable to make an appointment on time, are but a few examples. You should define what stresses you by writing down a list of them.
Add to this Pandora’s box of possibilities are people who come from a dysfunctional childhood. Women who are raped, men or women who are sexually incested as children, experiencing a violent event (being robbed, beaten, nearly dying from a violent act, going to war in a foreign country, reaction to 9/11, deep subconscious wound(s) from the past that are all unresolved wounds and it sends our cortisol into high levels and it never return to normal levels.
Lastly, don’t forget about the stress of our environment upon all of us: air pollution, heat/cold/noise, psychological stress (worry, fear, feeling threatened, feeling unsafe, feeling attacked, ect.), biochemical stress (nutritional deficiencies, sugar and salt consumption), all play a part in this too.
If we experience continuous high cortisol levels, then our healing ability is halted and slowed done. The immune system becomes suppressed. Glycogen (sugar) stores in the liver and muscle tissue are initiated and raise the blood sugar level (hypoglycemia or diabetes). Digestion and assimilation, then, are inhibited. The stomach lining becomes thin and ulcerated. Our Thymus gland and lymphatic tissue shrinks.
With all these cascade of symptoms due to high cortisol levels in our bloodstream that do not recede and return to normal, let’s look at the symptoms that it causes. Do you find yourself among these symptoms? If you do, in another blog I’ll tell you how to prove it by specific lab testing and then how to fix it to bring your cortisol levels down to normal function.
SYMPTOMS OF HIGH CORTISOL
ABDOMEN: people with high cortisol have weight gain and it bulges in the abdominal area. The abdominal fat is thickest and hardest to get rid of (nearly impossible) when you diet. This is the “apple” type of body. The fat goes first to the abdomen and is the last to be dieted off (if ever).
ADDICTIONS: Drugs (over-the-counter), recreational drugs, alcohol–anything to escape the monster inside yourself that keeps you anxious and edgy/tense. Drugs helps to nullify this sense of being threatened, anxious, unsafe or unprotected. Drugs dull these feelings but then you’re caught in a wheel of addiction.
ALLERGIES TO CERTAIN FOODS: food intolerance’s (allergies to certain food groups, such as wheat, et.) chronic gastrointestinal symptoms and other difficulties (for example, diarrhea after eating wheat products, ice cream, ect.).
ANXIETY: all the time. If you are from a dysfunctional home, you may have grown up with this emotional feeling and think this anxiousness is normal. It’s not. But you won’t know that until after you are diagnosed and on a regime to lower your cortisol level. Anxiety make people jumpy, nervous, it produces feelings of tension that never goes away. Tension can be felt in the neck, shoulders or anywhere else in our body where we ‘store it.’ Unable to relax, to feel calm, at peace and a deep sense of quiet inside ourselves, there is this sense of being ‘on edge’ is always in the background ‘noise’ of our lives. It never goes away.
BONE LOSS : If your adrenals are compromised, they make insufficient DHEA. This contributes to bone loss, shrinking of spinal column and loss of height.
BOWELS: constipation or diarrhea is a constant; especially under stress people either have a day of going to bathroom 5-10 times a day or they constipate for 2-3 days after the stress. Bowel movements only return to normal (3 BM’s a day), after stress is relieved from the person. If not, then they cascade into other diagnoses, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, divertisculosis or Crohn’s Disease.
CRITICAL: of yourself, blaming yourself for not doing the right thing all the time, critical of self for making mistakes, putting yourself down, never feeling good about yourself, feeling ashamed or not “good enough.” Low self-esteem. This little voice was started in early childhood when your parent(s) told you that you were not good enough, did not measure up or in some way, disappointed them. Bad on them.
DEPRESSION: comes and goes or is there all the time. When under stress, the depression will occur. When the stress is lightened or removed, the depression will lift somewhat or go away completely; depending upon the person and circumstance.
DIGESTION: impaired. Gut can’t absorb nutrition and we become nutritionally deficient in minerals and some vitamins. “Leaky gut” syndrome. Can be diagnosed as acute gastritis, heartburn, ulcers, ect. If you eat certain food groups (see Allergies, Food) there can be digestive upset, uneasiness or even nausea and in worst case scenario, vomiting. Get tested for food allergies. And, if having heartburn or ulcers, think about Biotics Research “Hydro-Zyme” with each meal.
DREAMING: You no longer dream. Or if you dream, you don’t remember them. Or, you dreamed at one time but don’t know. Often, we are cut off from our dream world, which is tragic. We lose this connection. High cortisol levels at night prevent our dreaming. Or if you dream, they are always dreams that contain anxiety, violence, a sense of vulnerability and being unable to protect yourself adequately.
ENERGY LAG: About 2 pm to 4 pm every day. Those who have this may use caffeine drinks (coffee, tea, soda) as a “pick-me-up”–all red flags.
EXTREME EXERCISING: In order to take the ‘edge’ we feel inwardly in the form of restlessness or anxiety, we turn to exercise as a way to ‘tame’ these feelings. We do it as an unconscious attempt to lower our anxiety (cortisol) levels. Anyone who must do five miles a day, or must jog “or else,” falls into this category. Exercise actually takes off the “edge” that we constantly feel when cortisol remains high. And we feel if we don’t exercise, something awful will happen to us. There’s an obsessive “drive” to exercise. Unconsciously, we’re lowering our cortisol levels for those few hours a day…to give ourselves internal and emotional relief from it.
FATIGUE: always feeling tired. Even if you got twelve hours of sleep, you still wake up feeling tired. You will “hit the wall” between 2 pm to 4 pm daily.
HEALING : Slowed down and slow regeneration or slow recuperation. If your cold or flu lasts longer and your recuperation time is abnormally slow, you are affected.
HYPERINSULISM: Plainly put, your insulin levels are too high. Chronic stress/high cortisol antagonizes insulin and will cause functional insulin resistance. And, the moment you eat a carbohydrate (pasta, bread, ect.) this causes hyperinsulism response. This is chronic insulin resistance and will lead, eventually, to pancreatic exhaustion. Further, the body makes FAT CELLS instantly out of ANY carbohydrate being consumed. You get FAT and the carbohydrate, which is really to be broken down and used for sugar and energy for the body, does not occur. All you get is fat cells and weight gain.
HYPOGLYCEMIA: Low blood sugar. You can experience it either during the night hours or during the day time. Try Biotics Research “Bio-Glycozyme Forte” with each meal.
IMMUNE SYSTEM: compromised a little or a lot. This can mean you catch a lot of colds or flu. Or, you don’t recover quickly from them…it takes weeks instead of days to rebound. It can mean arthritis, too. Or any other immune-compromising acute or chronic disease falls into this category as well.
IRRITABILITY: over things you shouldn’t get irate about in the first place — but you do. Irritability is always in the background with anxiety with high cortisol. You ‘trigger’ too fast with anger, rage or irritability to the situation. Your anger emotion clouds your judgment and mental ability to look beyond the moment. You find yourself wrestling with anger and irritability all the time. And when you fall victim to it, you will see it’s almost always the inappropriate emotion to have.
JOINTS: aching. As the cortisol cascade continues, our joints will take a hammering. Arthritis is usually the cascade outcome.
MENTAL: forgetful, and you may think you have Alzheimer’s, but you don’t. This gets worse with age. Other mental “voices” inside your head is the CRITIC.
METABOLISM: The adrenals and thyroid are directly affected. Only salvia testing and blood testing will confirm they are in a cascade due to high cortisol levels. Adrenals may be in one of the seven levels of exhaustion . The thyroid usually goes “hypo” and is slower than normal. This gives you an array of hypothryoid symptoms. The real culprit, however, is high cortisol. Get that fixed and your thyroid should usually return to normal function by itself.
MUSCLES: they will be destroyed over time. Loss of muscle mass. If you’re exercising, lifting weights and muscle mass is hard to create OR if you don’t exercise for 2-3 days, it is lost, then you have high cortisol levels.
NEGATIVE OUTLOOK ON LIFE: No matter what happens to you, even good things, you always fear something bad will happen next. You cannot take joy in your triumphs. You can’t absorb the confidence that comes with these triumphs. This leaves you with low self esteem. You are always looking for something bad to occur. There is little joy or happiness in your life. You see it as one slogging day after another. The only emotions you really feel are fear, anger and threat. You can’t feel joy or happiness or any of the other positive emotions others do. “The sky is falling,” was invented by a high cortisol level person. Depression. Hopelessness. Gray. Darkness. Loss of trust in people as well as yourself. Also, you tend to extrapolate what will happen in any event, with any person, place or thing. And you always will see the many possibilities and yet, at the same time, trying to protect yourself from the ‘worst case scenario’ that you believe will happen.
NEGATIVE VOICE: this emotional sense of failure is always with you. It tells you that you’re worthless, you should be ashamed of yourself, that you’re no good, that you’ll amount to nothing is always there whispering 24/7 in your ear. I call this the INNER CRITIC. This is associated with low self esteem.
NOISE: Can’t tolerate loud noises of any kind. This sets the person into irritability or anger. Sometimes, uncontrolled rage at the worst and irritability at the best.
ODORS: As an example, perfume will send you into orbit. You can’t stand strong smells of any kind and will avoid a perfume counter at all cost. Many can’t go into a hospital because of the sanitizing odors. Or at the as pump, the gas smell creates a terrific headache within minutes of inhaling the odor. Headaches are a common response to any odor that emotionally upsets you. Every day household supplies also create the same response. Migraines.
SELF-EDITING: Because you feel threatened, unsafe and potentially in danger at every turn, this is how you feel inside due to high level of cortisol in your bloodstream 24/7. Those who are conscious and doing inner work on themselves, they realize their inner self isn’t appropriate to live in Society, wear a ‘mask’ of a different personality in order to protect others from how they REALLY feel inside. This self-editing is a constant 24/7. Your first emotional response is to want to knee jerk and become irritable, scream and get angry, but you know that’s not the right response, so you self-edit yourself. WIth the mask in place, you speak calmly and work through the haze of your powerful emotions that want to do the opposite and act in a way that is societally acceptable. This is a tremendous struggle. It takes energy, time and some days you will feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. There is a tiredness (emotional) that can set in because of the energy expenditure you must keep in place.
For people who are not conscious of the inner/outer personality due to high cortisol levels, they will ACT OUT how they feel inside in the OUTSIDE world, and it is completely inappropriate in every way, but they can’t help themselves at this stage. These people are the rage-o-holics, the ‘going postal’ types, the road-ragers, the ones who kill people or attack them verbally or physically. They are the addicts with a drug problem. They are the abusers on every level: mental, emotional and physical.
SEX DRIVE: decreased to nonexistent.
WEIGHT GAIN: Always. Hard to lose it. Craving for comfort foods. Craving for sugar and salt. And, you gain weight even as you diet! It’s nearly impossible to lose your weight no matter how much exercise and diet you throw into the mix. Unless you go on a severe 600 calorie a day diet (women), you can lose the weight but as soon as you try to eat more than that, the weight comes right back on. No matter the diet, you cannot ever lose weight and keep it off. Obesity is the result unless you have the iron fist strength to maintain a 600 to 900 calorie a day diet for the rest of your life. It’s a miserable way to live. Pasta and bread products are your biggest weight gain choices. Usually an allergy to wheat is present. See: Hyperinsulism. Allergies, Food.
RELATED DIAGNOSIS: If you have Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Arthritis, Premature Menopause, these can all be tied into high cortisol levels and/or adrenal exhaustion.
Schmookler, E., Ph.D., Trauma Treatment Manual, 1996, Revised 2001, http://www.trauma-pages.com/s/schmookler-manual.php
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, American Psychiatric Assn., Washington, D.C., January, 1995
The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, 16th Edition, edited by Robert Berkow, MD, Merck Research Labs, Rahway,NJ, 1992.
Butler, K., The Biology of Fear, July/Aug., 1996, The Family Therapy Networker, Washington, D.C.