Stress hormone cortisol boosts recall of traumatic memories

stress hormone cortisolWe all get stressed time and time again. Ultimately, it’s how we handle our stress that determines our health outcomes.

An example of bad stress would be the kind associated with a traumatic experience. For example, this could be losing a loved one or being in a car accident. Trauma can be temporary or last a lifetime, it’s all about how we deal with it. New research finds stress, and stress disorders, can amplify traumatic events making us recall these memories over time.

The role of cortisol


Feeling stressedCortisol is the stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. Although linked to stress, cortisol is important for human function. Cortisol plays a role in the release of insulin, immune function, inflammatory response, regulation of blood pressure, and the metabolism of glucose.

Cortisol release typically peaks in the morning and fades out by the evening so we can get proper sleep. High amounts of cortisol during night-time hours can keep us awake.

When we become stressed our bodies enter a “fight-or-flight mode.” Cortisol gets released at this point, too. Energy increases, sensitivity to pain drops and memory function is heightened. When the stressful situation subsides, our cortisol levels drop. If they don’t, and cortisol levels remain high, it can affect our health in ways such as raising blood pressure, decreasing bone density, lowering our immune system response and slowing down healing.

Stress hormone cortisol strengthens recall of traumatic memories

Link between stress and hypertensionPublished in the journal Neuropsychpharmacology, researchers revealed that cortisol affects memory over time and during reconsolidation.

When memories are first created they become consolidated, which means they are stored to be retrieved later. Reconsolidation refers to the process after the memory has been retrieved. Researchers believe it is during this process that cortisol can have lasting effects.

Over the course of three days participants took part in the study project. On day one participants learned about geometric shapes and received an unpleasant electric shock. The second day some participants received cortisol pills and others a placebo. On the third day, memory of the geometric shapes was tested.

Researchers noted those who took cortisol remembered the fear of the electric shock associated with the geometric shapes. This was revealed by heightened skin conductance, which indicates emotional arousal.

How to manage cortisol levels

meditate to manage stressStress and high cortisol levels have often been revealed to have lasting effects on health. It is important to achieve good health to manage your cortisol and stress.

Six tips to better manage stress and cortisol:

  • Meditate: A Thai study revealed that those who practiced Buddhist meditation not only reduced cortisol, but blood pressure as well.
  • Listen to music: For best results, avoid high-tempo melodies. In a study, Japanese researchers allowed some patients undergoing a colonoscopy to listen to some music and others waited in a quiet room. Those who listened to music had lower cortisol levels than those who sat in silence.
  • Sleep: As mentioned, high cortisol can impair sleep, but sleep can also be effective to lower it. Sleep helps our body recover.
  • Laugh: Whether you watch a funny video online, or hang out with a funny friend, laughter can help lower cortisol.
  • Get a massage: Stress can cause muscle tension, so get a massage and promote relaxation.
  • Chew gum: Researchers at the U.K.’s Northumbria University found people under moderate stress who chewed gum lowered their cortisol levels by 12 percent in comparison to those who did not.

By practicing these health tips to reduce stress and cortisol levels you can maintain good health and reduce the recollection of traumatic memories.

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