It’s the night before a big presentation. Your director asked your team who would be willing to present your quarterly results? Last year, Craig volunteered and he got a huge bonus. You blurt out, “I’ll do it!” You have to put your best foot forward. The CEO will be there, and your boss is counting on you to represent your department well. Maybe this could lead to a promotion, and you really want that extra cash. You get home late from work, kiss your wife on the cheek, grab some leftover pizza, shout up the stairs to the kids, then rush to your computer to start cramming for something amazing.

Staring at the blinking black line on the screen, you start to feel anxious. To relax, you pour a generous glass of red wine and grab a bar of your favorite chocolate. “It’s already 9 o’clock? I didn’t even get to say goodnight to the kids?” You’re self-aware now. It’s clear that your stress levels are increasing. You start to go to war with enemies like brain fog and overall fatigue as you hash through your department’s quarterly progress. This is going to be a long night. Coffee anyone?

Enter cortisol. Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is fired into your bloodstream as a way to manage homeostasis, a healthy balance of things such as body temperature, immune response and pH (acidity) levels. When our veins are pumping too much cortisol, we start to have negative side effects like immune system compromise, trouble thinking clearly, and metabolic disruption. Did you ever notice while cramming for college finals that you got a nasty cold? Or maybe you had a hard time focusing? Did you gain a little weight?

According to an article in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science Dr. Esther Sternberg states, “During periods of increased stress, the immune cells are being bathed in molecules [namely cortisol], which are essentially telling them to stop fighting… Cortisol suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, rendering the body more susceptible to disease.”

So what causes increased levels of cortisol? Stress — more accurately, how we manage that stress. Stress triggers a response that tells our body it’s time to start finding balance again. That’s when cortisol levels increase. But often we don’t become active agents in helping or maintaining our own homeostasis. Instead, we become unwitting participants against our own homeostasis, ultimately causing more stress and anxiety.

For example, that frozen pizza (low quality, processed food high in saturated fat), that generous glass of wine (alcohol) and chocolate (caffeine and sugar), chased by three cups of coffee (more caffeine), and sleep deprivation (which can increase cortisol levels by 45 percent alone) all contribute to increased levels of cortisol. Our arsenal of “tools” to help us crank out phenomenal presentations often prevents us from doing anything great. The stress we seek to combat actually increases dramatically with our misguided efforts to manage it. We attempt to combat stress with weapons that actually end up combating us.

Becoming an active agent in our own homeostasis

I get it: things like eating healthy and finding good stress coping mechanisms such as journaling, expressing gratitude, exercise and meditation seem foreign to many. But evidence shows that incorporating these tactics into our lives bring extraordinary benefits to our overall wellbeing.

Rather than unintentionally feeding our bodies with things that end up hurting us, what if we intentionally fueled our bodies with things that actually help us “get ahead” in a different, more holistic way?

The pursuit of getting ahead, the “American Dream,” can lead us to implement our mind-body’s worst nightmare. What if we reframed the American dream? Perhaps overall health and wellbeing is better than money and things?

Have you ever heard the statement “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired“? Well most of the time, that’s completely up to us. We can be the primary change agent to our overall quality of life instead of relying on pills and doctors to dictate that for us.

The next time, if given an opportunity to take on a big project like this, think twice about it. The choice is yours. Say, “I don’t have to do this project, but I would like to,” and plan accordingly to set yourself up for a win. Or maybe, “Cynthia knows this material much better than I do; I’ll let her tackle this one,” and go spend the evening with your family.

The prize for that decision can definitely outweigh those all-nighters that usually lead us to wake up the next morning sick and groggy and still stressed out. Your family and your health will thank you for it.

Cheers to intentionality. Cheers to a quality life.

Kees Groenewegen