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Trauma Disorders and Cortisol (Part 1): What Is Cortisol?

Last fall, I started reading more about cortisol, an adrenal hormone perhaps best known for its role in the fight or flight reaction. I’d heard a lot of chatter about how we’re all drenched in the stuff on account of modern life is like fighting hungry lions only without all the hungry lions. And it occurred to me that if busy work schedules and not enough down-time could produce enough excess cortisol to get medical doctors pushing things like meditation, living with trauma disorders like Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) must be as dangerous as battling a pride of hungry lions on the edge of an active volcano during a hurricane.

Cortisol, the Chuck Norris Hormone

Cortisol is awesome. It flushes toxins out of the liver, regulates blood pressure, and calms down inflammation. During acutely stressful situations, our bodies secrete cortisol in higher doses to help aid our survival. Some of us with trauma disorders might have sustained significantly greater injury from rape, abuse, or other traumas associated with Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD if cortisol hadn’t been there to, among other things:

  • Desensitize us from pain
  • Give us extra energy
  • Temporarily increase our immunity
  • Heighten short-term memory

It’s pretty badass. But the way people have been talking about it lately you’d think cortisol is made of devil’s tears and acid rain. What gives?

Excess Cortisol Makes the Baby Jesus Cry

Like just about everything else, too much of a good thing isn’t so good. And when cortisol is that good thing, too much of it can cause:

… and so much more.

Trauma Disorders and Cortisol

If you have DID and/or PTSD, that list probably reads as much like your life story as it does mine. Which makes sense when you consider that anyone with DID, for instance, probably spent a fairly large chunk of their early childhood marinating in cortisol. Furthermore, Dissociative Identity Disorder and PTSD are stress incubators – their pathologies foster a remarkably stressful environment. So forget busy work schedules and not enough down-time; just living with one or both of these trauma disorders requires some Chuck Norris level badassery. Which means, in theory, lots and lots of cortisol.

Theoretical Cortisol Is Good Enough for Me

I say “in theory” because though this appears obvious:

… it may not be that simple. Some studies show elevated cortisol production in people with trauma disorders while others show cortisol suppression. Even so, I personally experience almost everything related to excess cortisol. And all of it gets worse when my life gets more stressful. So I decided it couldn’t hurt to just assume trauma disorders and excess cortisol go hand-in-hand, take inventory of how all that theoretical cortisol affects me, and see what happens (if anything) when I make changes targeted to decrease cortisol production. That last part remains an ongoing experiment and I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered so far. But first, a more in-depth look at how cortisol affects me … I suspect many of you with Dissociative Identity Disorder and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder will be able to relate to that post.

Trauma Disorders and Cortisol (Part 2): Cortisol Imbalance
Trauma Disorders and Cortisol (Part 3): Managing Cortisol
Trauma Disorders and Cortisol (Part 4): Why It Matters

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13 thoughts on “Trauma Disorders and Cortisol (Part 1): What Is Cortisol?”

  1. Thank you for posting your thoughts for others to read. I know it helps a lot of people who are truly hurting. That’s all I want to say, thank you for helping. <3

  2. I find it takes so much mental energy just “to appear normal”, and it is so frustrating when those close to us don’t even begin to realize just how painful and confusing living with DID is. I am a senior citizen now and “so tired of it all”!

  3. I can’t wait time to read all the comment and will follow your blog! Almost 5 years ago I was in an life changing wreck…feel free to check out my blog if you would like the details. This left me suffering from PTSD. As if losing my best friend/rock/Mom and having to learn to walk again wasn’t enough, I found (as I am sure you all know), most people don’t understand why you don’t “just get over it”. A couple of years ago, I started getting upper respitory infections everytime someone so much as sneezed around me. I have been overweight my entire life (other than a 2 year span when I developed hyperthyroidism in the 6th grade but that switched to hypothyroidism) so I have also dealt with high blood pressure. Other than a few bouts of normal bronchitis and the high bp I had always been healthy until after the wreck. Suddenly the upper respiratory infections started turning into pneumonia. My cycle is always the same….day one, I feel like my allergies are acting up, day two, I feel like crap, day three, I am seriously ill. My dr quickly referred me to a Pulmonologist who pretty much ran breathing tests and told me that it was caused by allergies. My dr could only shake her head. During this time I had gotten a nephrologist due to my younger years of uncontrolled high bp

  4. Hi Holly,
    I am so emotionally overloaded at the moment I don’t have any coherent views to contribute as yet. But I must say the discussions here have been very cool to read, and I m really thrilled to see you back. I missed this site a lot!
    Hi again, and welcome back.
    Kerri.

  5. Indeed, the real physiology and pathophysiology of cortisol is mos complicated interelation process when endocrine and nerve system are in first plane. Cortisol as stress hormone plays crucial role in psychological wellness, because it moderates emotional state in yet unknown way for psychopathology researches, even many hypothesis are in scope of neuroscience investigation. However, Your observation presents an useful contribution on managing of acute psychic disorder such are trauma disorders. In this case I would to stress that chronic and repetitive stressful experiences have negative consequences on our heath state, as a result of high level of cortisol in our blood. In order to avoid this unpleasant situation, it ought to posses the skill to control and manage the trauma events, that are inevitable, in any case.

  6. Hi Holly,

    The mind and ppl are fragile so I do not want to hurt or offend ppl especially given the nature of our disorders and personality fragments only getting certain info ESP if not co conscious and sharing histories. Took me 4 yrs of studying psych and sociology plus 1 yr of studying child abuse to get there. However keep in mind I do have global amnesia and can only advise as best as I can with what memories I have at time. Getting ther and I know u will too.

    Keep up the gd wk. must continue to wk as in Australia we are backwards. Hehehehe. Humor a must. Take care

  7. Hi Holly,

    DID DOES exist according to DSM-IV criteria and personally speaking from experience. If unit anyone close tomu notices the symptoms or u are aware enough personally to notice all the different altered states then yes you have your answer. U need to trust in yourself enough to know your own experience and what is true and valid for yourself and be strong and confident in that as NO. ONE knows u better than yourself and your life experiences and how that has caused negative adverse effects in your life as a result of trauma. U must first seek to trust ur self before u can trust another with anything in relation to DID or life itself. Most ppl miss themselves and don’t question themselves consciously enough. Jut way society is as a whole.

    Abuse and trauma (physical, sexual, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, medical, neglect, etc) are usually the only pathway to DID as a child’s personality is still forming and has no ability to use logical concepts. Now if that child is not allowed to develop properly then developmental needs as well as a lot of other needs have not been met and that child remainsstuck at that age or can split off until those needs are self met or through others. Only then can one reassociate the concepts into normal host waking consciousness but it is and can be very emotionally traumatic for ppl. Recovery and rehabilitation from anything usually is painful.
    Dissociation is the lack of connection and awareness between ones own thoughts, feeling, life experiences, history, etc. when one associates all these experiences together the information and knowledge is associated once again and in normal awareness as it has usually been processed emo, intellectually etc in order to come together and combine. Easiest way to explain it is at school we are taught to associate the letters of the alphabet with the sound of the letter and then we make words, that lead to sentences, paragraphs, essays, reports etc as one builds on that knowledge schooling the more one integrates knowledge into awareness. DID is similar. One must associate trauma history through repetition and review and a reactions where possible in order to integrate self back so that u are available to ur self.

    Also one can not be diagnosed with DID without a history or trauma usually and all the criteria that are associated with DID. 97 percent of DID is result of trauma according to psych books. Why. Nothing is ever 100percent accurate in life. No guarantees of anything. Hope this helps, but it is all a very complex diagnosis we live in and researchers stills do not know exactly about it all yet, just as they don’t about Crohns disease. Hence o one can ever guarantee u anything in life with that kept in mind. If they do it is opinion based and not fact based. Huge difference.

    Hope this helps. If any more questions pls feel free but know that miscommunication and misinterpretation can occur in thes e posts

    Take care

  8. So, let me get this straight…. Is or isn’t DID a Trauma Based Disorder?

    To spell this out.

    Dissociate (the root word or dissociative) :1. to break or cause to break the association between (people, organizations, etc) 2. ( tr ) to regard or treat as separate or unconnected 3. to undergo or subject to dissociation.

    Identity: 1.the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions: The identity of the fingerprints on the gun with those on file provided evidence that he was the killer. 2.the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another: He doubted his own identity. 3.condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is: a case of mistaken identity. 4.the state or fact of being the same one as described.

    Disorder: 1.lack of order or regular arrangement; confusion: Your room is in utter disorder. 2.an irregularity: a disorder in legal proceedings. 3.breach of order; disorderly conduct; public disturbance. 4.a disturbance in physical or mental health or functions; malady or dysfunction: a mild stomach disorder.

    Looking at these definitions alone one can conclude that the definition on DID is that there is a disturbance in the mental health or functions that is described as a break or disconnectedness in identity. It makes no sense that this would occur self misalignment would happen under normal circumstances. Why would a child break its identity, causing a disturbance in mental functions, over non traumatic experiences? I suppose this would require looking into the definition on mental functions.

    Mental Functions: or cognitive processes are defined as : perception, introspection, memory, creativity, imagination, conception, belief, reasoning, volition, and emotion — in other words, all the different things that we can do with our minds.

    Now this leads us to note that these are all things in which anyone with a mental disorder can have disturbed.

    I think anyone can draw their own conclusions but if you look closely at the above information I believe it is pretty safe to say that any child that was raised in a loving and safe environment would not have DID.

    Trauma: 1. Pathology. a. a body wound or shock produced by sudden physical injury, as from violence or accident. b. the condition produced by this; traumatism. 2.Psychiatry. a. an experience that produces psychological injury or pain. b. the psychological injury so caused.

    So defining DID as a trauma disorder is simply saying that the origin of this separation of self that has caused a disturbance in cognitive processes is an experience that produces psychological pain or injury.

    Now with all this said attempt to define DID as a disorder that does not have a basis of trauma.

    *rolls eyes* And I am directing the following comment to the mental health community (especially the DID community) How ridiculous is it that a person with DID that’s blogging with a sole focus on DID is someone with a DID diagnosis that denies that DID is a trauma disorder? Everytime this happens you may as well state that DID is not a disorder based solely on trauma, therefore invalidating both my trauma history as well as yours and everyone else’s.

    Is this a chemical imbalance? If so, feel free to share information as I would love to inform my psychiatrist. Last I heard they could only treat symptoms and not the disorder itself. It would actually ease my mind in some ways because a chemical imbalance being one that would be fixed with medication rather than going through years of processing in order to grow and thrive beyond what we knew when DID was created for each of us.

    How does this make a change to the public view!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?

    1. Hi Teddy,

      I didn’t count but I think I referred to Dissociative Identity Disorder as a trauma disorder about four times in this article, not counting the title. So I’m not sure why you say I deny that DID is a trauma disorder.

      So defining DID as a trauma disorder is simply saying that the origin of this separation of self that has caused a disturbance in cognitive processes is an experience that produces psychological pain or injury.

      Well-worded, I like that.

      However, I wouldn’t say, as you did, that Dissociative Identity Disorder is based *solely* on trauma. But I don’t know why saying that invalidates yours or anyone’s trauma history.

  9. I just read an article about Adult Survivors Of Sexual Abuse. Then I took a PTSD Test. Now I have read this article about stress and cortisol. I have a B.S. in Chemistry and an A.D. in Nursing and am a Registered nurse.
    I wanted to run to my bedroom to stuff the tears and cries with my blanky.
    I cannot believe I have the where-with-all to write this message.
    Holy Crap.
    I AM cortisol. That is ALL I am. I am nothing else, everything else about me takes a backseat the size of a flea.
    What a discovery. I don’t know what to do with it. Sigh.

    1. I can relate, Yvette.

      I remember, years ago, the first time I read about cortisol (also known as “the stress hormone”). I felt sort of … defeated.

      I AM cortisol. That is ALL I am. I am nothing else, everything else about me takes a backseat the size of a flea.

      I hear you.

  10. Hi Holly,

    One thing as a researcher and experimenter is NEVER assume anything until it has been proven multiple times otherwise the results are invalid, skewed and biased! There may be genetic reasons as to why people may have cortisol problems in conjunction with environmental factors that all come into play and then in certain individuals it will cause an explosion of syndromes, disease and disorders. However, all researchers, therapists, dietitians, drs know that first you must treat the main or primary problem before you can alleviate secondary or tertiary problems and disorders that have stemmed from that. Thus, in effect in DID, if you treat the primary cause (abuse and trauma memories) you possibly may experience a rise and fall in levels depending on what other internal and environmental triggers are being experienced. It is never a clear cut or simple answer when it comes to disorders or diseases especially when there is Comorbidity disorders that are experienced too. DID can also present with Comorbidity of PTSD, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, depression, BPD, OCD, etc depending on the individual’s case history and severity and extent of abuse. Plus on top of this the child or person may function at different levels as a host that is once again dependent on environmental circumstances, schooling, support, etc. so it is never an easy answer regarding stress and hormones and the role of the hypothalamus and pituitary glands. It is all very complex and intertwined in body and mind. It is a great idea that you want to keep track of your symptoms but be very weary you do not fall into trap and think that you experience all those symptoms as there are a lot of other medical conditions that can produce vague like symptoms. This was taught to me when I studied psych at uni. Cognitive distortions and errors so just please be careful. Make sure your results are not coincidental and that they can be reproduced many times regardless of other variables and factors that may or may not influence the results of your self experiment.

    Cortisol can also weaken immune system as one factor and variable, however the person also needs to have genetic susceptibility and predisposition in order for something to occur. I have Crohns disease also that is in remission. My stress and anxiety levels are massive however stress and anxiety does not affect my Crohns in my personal case. It may affect others but not me, so the theory is not correct there. This is where genetics, food, environmental factors come into play also. Plus I have had massive hormonal (estrogen and progesterone imbalances, endometriosis, Ibs, massive food intolerances, infertility, etc and yet I have still managed to conceive even though had miscarriages x 2 previously that we’re related to undiagnosed endometriosis. So yes stress does a lot of things to body but so too do other physical problems too. Fatigue and weight gain could also be due to many factors such as hormonal imbalances, anemia, sleep deprivation, eating too much foods that may be very fibrous this causing bloating as direct result that could be mistaken for weight gain. At end of day if you are truly concerned about your cortisol levels you can get your doc to do a blood and 24hr urine test in order to know for certain. Only then and once physical problems are ruled out can you attribute it to stress.

    However I think it is great that you want to get to know your body and are educating yourself regarding your life and possible symptoms. Well done and keep your records accurate. More accurate, more relevant they are.

    1. Hi Diana,

      You said:

      One thing as a researcher and experimenter is NEVER assume anything until it has been proven multiple times otherwise the results are invalid, skewed and biased!

      But then you also said:

      However, all researchers, therapists, dietitians, drs know that first you must treat the main or primary problem before you can alleviate secondary or tertiary problems and disorders that have stemmed from that. Thus, in effect in DID, if you treat the primary cause (abuse and trauma memories) you possibly may experience a rise and fall in levels depending on what other internal and environmental triggers are being experienced.

      So I must ask … is there a way to prove, multiple times as you recommended, that Dissociative Identity Disorder exists? If so, is there a way to prove that abuse and trauma memories are the primary cause of DID?

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