Avoid the cortisol demons

 In Better Life, Communication, Relationships

When we experience stress, it triggers the release of cortisol in our body, which heightens our sensitivity to other stressors and can keep us focused on the problem.  We can get so focused in fact, that we lose perspective and the ability to even think logically about other things.  It’s much easier to notice this happening in someone else rather than in ourselves.  The other person may act unreasonably and say things that put us on the defensive.  When this happens, what should we do?  Our instinctive response is nicely highlighted by this great parable.

The King is away the day that a nasty demon visits the castle.  The demon jauntily strides right up to the King’s throne and takes a seat.  The King’s knights are aghast!  How dare this demon have such gall!  They start yelling at him to leave.  This only makes the demon even nastier; he starts yelling obscenities back at them.  The knights prod the demon with their swords and yell even louder.  The demon becomes smellier, uglier, and bigger.  The knights get angrier and angrier as the demon grows bigger and nastier.

Finally the King returns and sees the terrible situation that is taking place.  The King is very wise and quickly calls off his knights.  He then turns to the demon and asks how he can help him.  The demon becomes quieter.  The King continues in a calm voice and offers to bring the demon something to drink. The demon starts shrinking.  As the King continues to treat the demon  with kindness, the demon starts shriveling up until “Pop!” he disappears entirely.

When we interact with someone who is flooded in cortisol, they may say or do something that triggers our cortisol cycle.  The result isn’t pretty!  Our instinct is to attack back, which only makes the demon grow bigger. Instead, we can recognize what’s happening and choose to say, “Is everything OK?”   Keep an eye out for future demons and see if you can prevent the counter-attack.  Can you think of any past situations you could have tried this approach?


Tina Hallis, Ph.D., is founder and owner of The Positive Edge, a company dedicated to helping individuals and organizations increase their positivity to improve the quality of people’s work lives and the quality of company cultures.

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