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This Is the Face of Cortisol

When you don't like something, your body responds.

Key points

  • Cortisol creates a full-body response, even if we're not consciously aware of it.
  • Cortisol triggers feelings of being threatened even when you don't consciously think you're threatened.
  • A baby's cortisol response can help us notice and manage our own.

Cortisol is your brain's signal that something is bad for you. It triggers the urge to push a threat away with your whole body. This baby's response to the food he's tasting helps us understand our cortisol response.

Check out the rise in his shoulders at 0:15. It just happens without conscious intent. This is how you feel when you release cortisol. The point is not that we should grimace and shudder when we don't like something. The point is that we hold back these responses so much that we lose track of them.

In daily life, we often have mixed feelings about things. We see the good and the bad, which means we release cortisol and a happy chemical at the same time. Often, you have good reasons to ignore your negative responses.

  • You think something is good for you in the long run.
  • You don't want to disappoint someone.
  • You want to gather more information before jumping to a conclusion.

A lot is written about saying no in our day-to-day lives, but sometimes you're better off saying "yes" when you feel "no." Maybe you have a math test coming up but the idea of studying makes you feel like this baby. Maybe you want to honor a commitment you made to someone but the idea of doing the work makes your shoulders shudder. Maybe you've had enough to eat, but the idea of wrapping up the leftovers makes your cortisol surge. The human brain is big enough to have mixed feelings about things. So you often want to do something while your body is saying nooooooooo.

You try to just squelch that feeling, but you end up feeling squelched a lot. Instead, it's useful to be consciously aware of your negative feelings, even as you strive to over-ride them. It helps to know where awful feelings come from.

Before going further, I must say more about the baby since people are quick to make judgments. He's a happy baby with loving parents. They made the conscientious decision to offer avocado as his first food to avoid biasing him toward carbs. Avocado seems bland to adults, but its faint bitterness is a lot for a baby who has never eaten anything but sweet breast milk. (And they even diluted the avocado with breast milk!) In case you're still worried about the baby, the happy ending is below.

Cortisol makes you feel bad because that's how it does its job. It's your brain's signal that you are not on track to meet your needs. Cortisol revs up your body to escape something bad so you can get back to something good. It alerts you with a bad feeling when things are not as good as expected. But how do we know what's good and bad?

Inborn knowledge is extremely limited in us humans. Most of our knowledge is learned from experience. Aversion to bitterness is one of our few innate responses, and we even learn to override that. Even monkeys learn to like bitter foods in the right circumstances. Much of our learning is non-verbal, which is why we don't notice it. We learn that something is bad when it triggers cortisol, and something is good when it triggers a happy chemical.

Dopamine is released when a need is met. Neurons connect, which wires us to expect more good feelings from similar experiences. We learn to repeat behaviors that meet our needs. Neurons also connect when cortisol flows, which wires us to avoid behaviors that trigger cortisol.

Our learned responses are heavily influenced by the responses of those around us. You can see the baby making eye contact with Dad at 0:06. Dad's smile tells him that it's safe to give it another try, but his body says, noooooo.

Sometimes your body says nooooo. When this happens, it can be helpful to know that you created the bad feeling with neural pathways leading to your cortisol. The bad feeling is temporary, and eventually, your body metabolizes the cortisol (which has a half-life of 20 minutes).

Our neural pathways are built from repeated experience. This baby had different food on Day 2 and responded with cautious curiosity. By Day 3, he was eager for more. He trusts his own responses, but in time he will also learn that he can have a positive and negative response at the same time.

Loretta Breuning
Source: Loretta Breuning

I was struck by this baby's response because I had already written about a different baby's first taste of food in the blog post "This Is the Face of Dopamine." She reacted with her whole body in a hilarious way too. Babies help us understand the primal responses that we have buried underneath our sophisticated analysis.

Sometimes you feel like screaming even though you're doing something good for you. It helps to know where that bad feeling comes from. We are born with needs, but with no way to meet our needs except to cry. Crying is one of our only inborn skills, and it works. Crying brings help, and that gets your needs met. As you grow, you learn more skills for meeting your needs, so you don't have to cry. But the urge to explode into tears reflects one of the core pathways in our brain. When you feel like you're not meeting your needs, you may squelch the urge to cry, but it still feels surprisingly bad. Knowing why you feel this way protects you from jumping to the conclusion that it's a real survival threat.