Are you on edge at work and at home? Increased levels of stress can, over time, erode not only your body’s health, but also your ability to manage challenging situations. And if it’s not properly managed, stress can ultimately cue our genes to negatively affect our health.

First of all, let’s be clear: Cortisol is an invaluable hormone that helps us respond to surprising, difficult and even dangerous situations. When faced with a stressor, your adrenals release cortisol, which increases heart rate and blood sugar levels in order to engage your fight-or-flight response and give you the energy you need to take action. This is healthy!

Over time, however, if your fight-or-flight response is continually engaged, there are a slew of negative affects that can occur.

First and foremost, perpetually activating fight-or-flight may decrease its effectiveness. This means that when you need it most, your body may not be as quick to respond. Secondly, heightening your blood sugar levels can cue your body to hunger—even when you’re not actually in need of food. Translation: Under the influence of cortisol, you may over eat and subsequently gain weight. Finally, prolonged exposure to cortisol can negatively affect your skin, bones, sleep cycles, and organ function.

On a genetic level, cortisol can affect the way that your genes are expressed. We all potentially carry the genetic predisposition for diseases that our ancestors have had (such as cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s). These genes can be turned on or off by a variety of factors, including environment, diet and fitness level. And it is also widely known that stress and cortisol levels can be key activators of these genes.

What to do? Take a good old-fashioned time out when you feel yourself being triggered at home or at work. Stepping back from the stressor and taking a moment to breathe calmly can not only diminish the negative affects of cortisol, it can also help you gain perspective before you react.

And remember, some stress is good stress. Occasionally activating fight-or-flight keeps you bright, lively and ready for action. Just don’t fall into the habit of stressing out all day, every day. Your body (and your genes) will thank you!

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