Empower Yourself: Conquer the Stress Response Cycle
Your heart is racing, your shoulders and chest are tight, you have a foreboding sense
of dread that is hard to pin down: in short, you are stressed. The effects of being stressed can be far-reaching; you may have trouble concentrating, feel exhausted yet somehow have trouble sleeping, have an upset stomach, or become irritated by even the smallest annoyance. In short, it can be hard to function optimally when you are racked with stress. Each of us experience stress as a natural part of life. We encounter challenges, setbacks, and even various kinds of trauma throughout our lives, all of which tend to trigger the stress response within us.
The good news is that by understanding how the stress response cycle works in our body we can empower ourselves to recognize when we are stressed and choose to “complete the stress response cycle”. In so doing we enable our system to reset and then recharge. Our bodies are set up to move between states of “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” frequently. Problems can arise however, when we fail to move
out of the “fight or flight” response and instead, get stuck there. Getting stuck in this state of stress response activation often turns into chronic stress, which wreaks havoc on our bodies. Chronic stress can cause increased blood pressure, higher risk of heart attack and stroke, increased risk for depression, elevated cortisol levels that can cause the build-up of fatty tissue which leads to weight gain, and numerous other health problems.
I just finished reading a fantastic new book
on this topic entitled Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia and Emily Nagoski. The Nagoskis are twin sisters who teamed up to write this book, each bringing their own perspective and experience to the table. Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and holds a Ph.D in health behavior and Ameila Nagoski is a professor of music who holds a DMA in choral conducting. Ameila has first-hand experience with chronic stress; in fact, it landed her in the hospital two different times. The sisters cite Amelia’s experiences with chronic stress as a driving force for sharing this information with the world. Their book is aimed at female-identifying folks, however their information about the stress response cycle can be applied by all humans, regardless of gender identity.
Stress vs. Stressor
The first step in understanding how the stress response cycle works is distinguishing between the stress we feel in our bodies and the stressors that instigate it. Stressors activate the stress response within the body. They can be anything your brain perceives as danger-a deadline you have to meet, a conflict in a relationship, worries about money, experiencing discrimination and/or harrassment, pressure to meet societal expectations, dangerous situations, or traumatic events, to name a few.
Stress is the physiological response that this stressor triggers in the body. This response includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased blood flow to muscles, heightening of the senses, halting of digestion-all of which helped our ancestors in times of danger. Humans evolved to have this response to danger out of survival; it is what keeps us alive in moments of actual physical threat. As the Nagoskis explain in their book, when our ancestors came across a lion in the wild, the activation of the stress response gave them the physical ability to either fight off the lion or outrun it to safety. Once they had survived this encounter with danger, they were then able to return to their village, relay what had just happened to others in their community, and ultimately celebrate their triumph over the lion by connecting with their loved ones. Having triumphed over danger and connected with others, our ancestors “completed” the stress response cycle and were then able to move on from the incident.
In modern life, our stressors are often things that we cannot solve in one day. Debt can take decades to pay off, degrees take years to complete, health problems can take time to unfold, trauma and grief take time to work through, and relationships have ups and downs. However, when we can recognize the stress we feel in our body as separate from the stressors themselves, we can address that stress and move into a calmer physical and mental state that will then allow us to chip away at the stressor. We are much better equipped to deal with the bigger problems and puzzles in life when we feel good in our body and mind.
Completing the Cycle
As we can see from the above example with the lion, the stress response gives us the “superhuman” strength and endurance to deal with physical danger, but unfortunately (or perhaps some would argue fortunately?) most of the stressors we encounter in modern life do not require us to actually put this physical strength to use. Furthermore, we rarely have the chance to triumph over our stressors in a way as cut-and-dry as defeating or outrunning a lion, and this is exactly where we end up in trouble. Without putting the stress response to use through physical exertion and without the release and connection that comes from experiencing the triumph, we fail to complete the stress cycle. Fortunately, there are other ways that we can complete the cycle once we know that it is something that we need to prioritize.
Physical Exercise: Physical activity has been proven to be the best way to complete the stress response cycle. If you have ever experienced the “exercise high” after a workout, this most likely rings true to you. If you haven’t experienced that high, just think about the lion example again-moving your body gives your system the impression that you have outrun or fought off the offending stressor! The type of physical movement you do does not matter, as long as you get your heart rate up enough for your body to breathe deeply. So run, hike, swim, walk, play tennis, have a dance party in your living room-whatever works for you in your life. Experts recommend at least 20-60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week to accomplish moving through the stress cycle. When possible, exercise outdoors in nature for extra stress-reducing benefits.
Deep Breathing: Taking control of your breath by employing deep breathing exercises is a sort of hack of the nervous system. By slowing down and deepening our breath we can transition out of the state of fight or flight and into that of rest and digest. Pranayama breathing exercises from yoga such as Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) and 1:2 Ratio breath where we make our exhalations twice as long as our inhalations work wonderfully.
Positive Social Interaction: When our fight or flight response is activated we are much more likely to view the world as a scary and threatening place. Our system is primed to suspect danger lurking around every corner. A positive social interaction with another person contradicts this fear-based mindset and helps us see the world as a safe place where people are not out to get us. Whether it is saying good morning to your neighbor on your way out the door, a friendly chat with the barista at the coffee shop, or running into an acquaintance at the grocery store and stopping to catch up for a few minutes, positive social interactions do wonders for mood and the nervous system as a whole. While feeling stressed can often make us act in anti-social ways, see if you can overcome any propensity towards shutting down and instead open yourself up to friendly banter-you may be surprised at how quickly it can change your frame of mind.
Laughter: As the saying goes, laughter really is the best medicine. Sharing a deep belly laugh with a friend is sure to undo the effects of stress and do wonders for your nervous system. Laughing tears down walls between people and replaces them with connection in ways that are healing to our bodies as well as our souls.
Affection: Similar to laughter and positive social interactions, when we give and receive affection we are connecting with another human in a way that signals to our nervous system that we are safe and out of harm’s way. The Nagoski sisters suggest sharing a long hug with a friend, partner, or family member as a sure fire way to complete the stress response cycle. I would add that a snuggle with a beloved pet works well, too!
Crying: Who doesn’t love a big ole cry now and then? I know I certainly do! The emotional release that comes from allowing yourself to open the floodgates and let out any built-up emotional distress is often powerful. I recommend finding a private space where you can let yourself cry as long and as loudly as you need to. You may feel yourself moving through a range of different emotions through this process. Let yourself feel each one and then release it as you are ready, until you eventually move into a state of calm.
Creative Expression: One of the reasons creative activities bring us so much joy is they provide a positive outlet for us to channel our emotions. Creating something new, whether it be music, a painting, a sewing or woodworking project, or a satisfying meal, is an excellent way to complete the stress cycle. Most artists and creative types have experienced the sense of peace and satisfaction that can come from creative expression. Give yourself permission to create and see how it changes your stress level.
Give it a try!
The next time you notice yourself sinking into a state of stress, try out one (or more!) of these stress-response-cycle-completing strategies. For each person some strategies will work better than others, so experiment by trying them each out so you can discover what works best for you. This is powerful knowledge that can empower you to reshape your life if you put it into action. Remember, once you complete the stress cycle you can then move on to dealing with the stressors themselves, and that is where the life-changing magic happens!
Thank you again to Amelia and Emily Nagoski for their powerful research into this subject. If this article was helpful in any way to you, I encourage you to check out their book Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle!