Testosterone-Cortisol Ratio - A Model For Stress

We live in a world that’s contains a lot of crazy. One way I deal with it is to manage my emotional state by monitoring and adjusting what I call the “testosterone-cortisol” ratio.

Testosterone and cortisol are hormones. But this ratio is not based on their actual level in my bloodstream and is a conceptual model only, not a medical intervention.

Testosterone is the principal male hormone. It’s been widely suggested that winning a competition raises your testosterone level while losing lowers it. This may well be bunk (studies conflict), but we can still use the idea of this to think of testosterone as the hormone for winning or positive energy.

Cortisol is, among other things, the body’s stress hormone. Stress can be good at some level, such as that coming from a vigorous workout at the gym, but chronic stress is unhealthy and some say even dangerous, with a wide range of reported negative effects. I think of cortisol as the hormone for losing or negative energy.

Too Much Cortisol

In my experience today, far too many people are way too saturated with stress (cortisol) on a persistent basis. The culprit is pretty simple to identify in many cases – national politics – but there are many other possible sources.

The news cycle and social media were increasingly keeping people in a perpetual state of agitation.

I see so many people today who regularly post rants on Facebook about the outrage du jour.  Even when I agree with them, I can’t help but think that some of these folks have damaged their mental and even physical health by working themselves up like this daily.

Most of the things that get me upset fall into two categories: 1) minor indignities of daily life that quickly pass, such as getting cut off in traffic, or 2) macro events that I cannot plausibly effect.  The former tend to be self-correcting. The latter will turn me into a cortisol factory if I let them.

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So I actively take steps to try to ensure I’m raising my “testosterone” and lowering my “cortisol.”  For example, while I do personally vote. I keep my computer shut and just wake up the next morning to see who won.

When there is something in the news that I consider “bad,” I try to tune things out. Conversely, when something happens that I see as a “win,” I spend a lot of time on Twitter. In other cases, when I feel I need a jolt of energy, I engage on social media regardless.

The point is to avoid getting perpetually stressed out over things I can’t do anything about. It’s not that I don’t care, but I try to focus my engagement where I do think I can make something of a difference, even if small scale.  For example, there’s a lot wrong in the world and the church, but I choose to focus on the intersection of Christianity and masculinity, and to some extent a broader exploration of what it means to live in what I call the “negative world.”  So last year I read over 20 books related to my Christian masculinity project.

Focus on What Concerns You

Another way to think about this comes from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve actually never read the book, but a mentor used an illustration from it to kick me in the butt one time. This model involves two circles, one nested inside the other. The smaller, inner circle is our “circle of influence” (or control). This is what we are responsible for or can affect in some way. The larger outside circle is our “circle of concern,” which is everything we are worried about or can affect us.

Our circle of concern should be bigger than our circle of influence because that’s how we grow. We expand our influence into new areas this way. But if our circle of concern is too much bigger than our circle of influence, then we end up distracted from focusing on the things we can do something about or the things we are actually primarily responsible for. What’s worse, because we can’t do anything about the things that are inside our circle of concern but outside of our circle of influence, we get eaten up with useless worry, etc. This is the zone of negative energy where our cortisol levels spike up and our effectiveness decreases and our health can even be jeopardized.

This mentor told me my circle of concern was way too big – far larger than my circle of influence - and it was only going to get me in trouble. And he was right.

Because of social media and other things, our circles of concern today tend to be gigantic. We are worried about all sorts of macro things, especially national politics, far removed from our sphere of influence in our daily lives. Again, this only causes us mental and even physical health problems and takes our focus and energy away from where it should be.

This is another reason to make sure that I include positive, not just negative newsletters. I want to be a source of testosterone, not just load you up with more cortisol, of which you no doubt already have more than enough.

Social Media

I’m trying to take this to the next level. I logged out of Facebook about a month ago and haven’t been back since (or missed it). The documentary The Social Dilemma discusses how social media manipulates you to be stressed.  The bigger challenge is exiting Twitter.

Nothing you can do about it except getting outraged.

I deleted the app from my phone and logged out on my desktop and plan to avoid scanning my timeline or posting if I can. I’m not sure this is one I can maintain long term. I actually do use Twitter professionally. But maybe I’m just rationalizing because that app is basically a toxic waste dump.

In any case, I do consciously try to control the inputs into my system such that I try to keep my testosterone up and my cortisol down. I try to actively manage my mental and emotional state through the management of the stimuli I subject myself to. When I go into a stress-inducing situation, which is in fact frequently, I want it to be positive stress for me to take on: a physical workout, addressing a family or business issue that needs to be faced, forcing myself into socially challenging situations for personal growth, helping someone who is going through a difficult time, etc.

I don’t want it to come from the social media or news cycle outrage du jour. This same principle applies to other areas too. For example, I love reading magazines, but I no longer read most of the ones I previously enjoyed, because their sole function is stoking FOMO and the desire to consume.

As always, this is just what I do. You have to make your own choices. But I see many people who seem to have gotten themselves in a bad place through too much outrage over things that, while they may well be legitimately outrageous, are things we actually can’t do anything about.

This article is based on an older Masculinist Newsletter. Read more of it here. If you’d like to get more important insight like this, sign up for the monthly newsletter below.

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