How Relationships Impact Cortisol Levels

I’m guessing most of us know at least a little something about the hormone cortisol and how it is associated with a stress response. Cortisol is part of the flee/flight/freeze response mechanism we all are born with that serves to protect us. Too much cortisol over a period of time has been shown to negatively impact the brain and normal development and even a person’s immune system.

Toxic stress and excessive cortisol go hand-in-hand.

Do you know what your cortisol level is right now?

I doubt it. I don’t know mine, and it’s not like we have easy ways to test our cortisol levels like diabetics do when they test their blood sugar levels.

You may suspect your cortisol level probably goes up when your body is responding to something you are seeing or experiencing that causes an increased heart rate, jittery feelings, nervousness and the need to run or punch something. Adrenaline jumps in as well, and it can be a powerful hormonal cocktail!

It turns out scientists can measure levels of cortisol to gather data on how much stress a baby, child or adult’s brain is experiencing. More and more, scientists can document when cortisol levels go up and down by testing saliva samples—which is especially helpful since cortisol levels would go way up if you needed to stick a baby, child or even adult to measure the levels in their blood.

The invisible nature of cortisol in human relationships

Several years ago, I learned some research on cortisol that surprised me as it demonstrated the invisible nature of cortisol levels and the power of human relationships to help regulate those levels. It comes from the very excellent DVD 10 Things Every Child Needs .

About 16 minutes into the DVD, the narrator states: “… certain levels of cortisol are to be expected as a normal and healthy part of development. But if the levels get too high they can affect heart rate, digestion, and even the ability to think. Doctors now have the ability to measure cortisol… and what they’ve discovered is that the presence of a loving caregiver actually has a physical effect on the child.”

Physician and researcher Dr. Felton Earls, Professor of Human Behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health shares the following: “One of my colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Megan Gunner, has done extraordinarily good work showing that the when a child is in a physician’s office about to get an immunization that it makes all the difference in the world if the child is sitting on mother’s lap as opposed to sitting on an exam table.

“The baby may cry in both positions just as much but when we measure cortisol levels, what we find is that the baby who is sitting on the mother’s lap has much less of a response to this event in terms of cortisol levels. Based on all of this, researchers believe that a loving consistent relationship could offset even the most extreme levels of stress and that without it a child’s growth could actually be stopped.”

No outward signs of cortisol being released.

One of the things I take away from this, and invite you to consider also, is that we can’t tell from outward behaviors of babies and children what is going on inside of them in terms of how much cortisol is being released. If a baby being held by a mother versus a baby sitting on the exam table cries just as much when getting a vaccination, and yet the cortisol levels within each child is vastly different, what does that mean to us as parents and caregivers?

There are many articles on the Internet explaining cortisol levels remain in a healthy zone when distressed babies are lovingly held even though they may continue to cry. (See some website sources listed below.) Some of the recommendations even focused on teenagers, noting that they, too, can respond to being held in a loving way when they are distressed.

Since excessive cortisol results in high toxic stress levels that in turn can do serious damage to a child’s growing brain, how much more attention should we be paying to providing safe and loving embraces to our children, especially when they are distressed? It appears that caring relationships that involve providing these loving embraces have the power to alter the trajectory of a child’s life.

I think that is pretty powerful!

I encourage you to think about the next time your child is distressed and not measure how loud or how hard that child cries to be the indicator of how much internal stress that child is experiencing. It’s an amazing awareness to know that you have the power to influence those levels of toxic stress by holding and hugging your child through crying episodes!

Oh, and all that loving embracing also has the power to lower your stress levels. It’s win-win for all!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Notice your reaction to this information about the invisible nature of cortisol levels. Are you surprised?
  2. Consider what the implications are for you and the children in your family. Especially consider these implications if one or more of your children seems easily distressed and cries a lot or even withdraws when distressed. How might this information change your behavior?
  3. How does it feel to know you have a power to keep your child’s cortisol levels within normal range by providing a loving relationship that includes holding, cuddling and physically reassuring the child, even if that child continues to be distressed for a while?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Additional resources: The Science of Mother’s Day –references cortisol study