Did you know that a sudden spike in the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ can actually leave you feeling calm, more focused and able to concentrate more? The trick is timing.
You would expect that giving a group of healthy volunteers a dose of stress-hormone would make them stressed and reduce their concentration, even hours afterwards, but no.
A group of healthy volunteers were made to sit a test. Before they sat the test, they were given an injection of a cortisol-analogue (10mg hydrocortisone). Half the group was given the injection 4.5 hours before the test. The other half was given the injection around an hour beforehand.
The volunteers had a completely different experience depending on when they were given the injection. An hour after the injection, the volunteers felt more jittery and anxious and were unable to concentrate, as you might expect. However, 4.5 hours after the injection, this effect was completely reversed! 4.5 hours later, the volunteers sitting the test were calmer, more focused and were able to concentrate even better than they would if they were not given any cortisol at all!
We also see cortisol having a completely effect depending on whether we produce a short, sharp burst of cortisol or keep releasing it over a prolonged period of time. A short, sharp burst of cortisol makes you feel brave. A prolonged release makes you anxious.
Armed with this knowledge, you might be able to plan your day using stress/cortisol to your advantage. For instance, exercise can sometimes result in a cortisol surge, so you might want to squeeze in a quick exercise session 5 hours before something that requires you to concentrate. Similarly, if you know something is going to stress you on a particular day, remember to avoid scheduling anything that requires you to be calm and focused for several hours afterwards.
Cortisol levels are notoriously difficult to control so this might not work every time, as things like coffee intake and your general health can affect its release. However, if you can’t prevent a stress response/cortisol surge, there is no harm in at least trying to use it to your best advantage!
Henckens, M. J., van Wingen, G. A., Joels, M., and Fernandez, G. (2011). Time-dependent corticosteroid modulation of prefrontal working memory processing. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 5801–5806.
Henckens, M. J., van Wingen, G. A., Joels, M., and Fernandez, G. (2010). Time-dependent effects of corticosteroids on human amygdala processing. J. Neurosci. 30, 12725–12732.