8 Science Backed Ways to Complete The Stress Cycle To Manage Chronic Stress
Stress: It's Around Every Corner
In our fast-paced, pressure cooker world, stress is an ever-present companion. Like toddlers wanting snacks or unread emails - every time you turn around, it's just there. Whether it's the demands of work, family responsibilities, figuring out how to get three kids to three different schools with the same start time, or simply the challenges of navigating life, stress can take a toll on our mental and physical well-being.
Eliminate stress, they say. And sure, there are some stressors we can eliminate - we can end a toxic relationship, seek out a job that doesn't make unreasonable demands, and say no a little more often. But you might wonder how you're supposed to eliminate stress when most of it comes from just living the life you want to be living - raising a family, advancing in a career, putting in volunteer time, and planning major life events.
The solution isn't to eliminate all our stressors. Instead, the fix is to end the stress cycle, a concept popularized by the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.
The Stress Cycle Explained
The classic example of the stress cycle is to picture being in a jungle with a lion nearby. The body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in response to a perceived threat. These hormones flood the body, creating physiological changes designed to put all systems on high alert. The heart rate elevates, blood pressure rises, breathing quickens, muscles tense, and senses heighten in anticipation of danger. You gear up to either fight something, run away or freeze in place. This process is the stress response - the human body's natural and necessary reaction to a threat. When danger is averted, you're safely home, and there is no longer a threat, the flood of stress hormones stops. Now, the body systems can return to a neutral and deactivated state. Heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, breathing returns to normal, muscles relax, and your senses can rest. This return to a deactivated state is the end of the stress response and the completion of the stress cycle - your body's return to a balanced and calm state of being in the absence of a threat.
Caught in the Cycle: When the Stress is Omnipresent and Ever-present
But what happens when the stress in question isn't a singular event, like a lion in a jungle, but just - life? Work, parenting, showing up for the people and communities we care about, all the demands on our time and energy coming from every direction. Throw in a few curveballs like car trouble, financial insecurity, emotional upheaval, or chronic pain, and it can feel downright intolerable. In other words, what happens when the stress is always present?
The body's natural response to stress involves activating the "fight, flight, or freeze" response by producing the stress hormones that prepare us to face the perceived threat. While this response is essential for survival in short bursts, chronic stress can lead to a buildup of these hormones, negatively affecting mental and physical health. The Mayo Clinic says this about chronic stress:
The long-term activation of the stress response system and too much exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all the body's processes. This puts you at higher risk of many health problems, including: Anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, problems with memory and focus.
If you want to watch a disturbingly eye-opening account of the effects of chronic stress check out this National Geographic piece created in conjunction with Stanford University Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky.
Complete The Stress Cycle To Manage Chronic Stress
When stress becomes chronic, our physiology gets stuck in the stress response phase of the cycle. Adrenaline and cortisol continually flood our system, and our bodies remain activated in that "fight, flight or freeze" phase, resulting in feelings of being overwhelmed, poor sleep, trouble focusing and physical and mental health issues.
To avoid the negative impacts of chronic stress, we can insert practices into our daily routines that complete the stress cycle. These practices have been proven to reduce stress hormones and increase feel-good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. Engaging in these activities sends a clear message to our brains and bodies. Hey body, hey brain. We're all good right now. We can stop sounding the alarms.
Proven Practices That Complete the Stress Cycle
When chronic stress overwhelms us, it's often hard to engage in the very activities that end our body's stress response. By working certain practices into our daily routine, we can regularly engage in practices that help our bodies recover from the effects of the stress response before it becomes chronic and overwhelming.
What feels relaxing to the body and rejuvenating for the spirit can be a very individual experience. However, some practices have been studied and universally proven to deactivate stress hormones while activating the good ones. Here are 8 science backed ways to complete the stress cycle to manage chronic stress.
Positive Social Interaction: When we're so overwhelmed that we feel like hiding under a rock, getting together with a friend might feel like the last thing we have time for. But that's when we need it most. Even a quick coffee and catch-up with a caring friend satisfies our human need to be with other humans in a loving and non-threatening way and triggers the release of those feel-good hormones.
Breathing: Any deep, slow breathing rhythm will work. Focus on slowing down and completely emptying your lungs on the exhale. Try 5 x 5 x 7 breathing: breathe in for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, and breathe out slowly to a count of 7, Fully exhaling to the very bottom of the breath. As you do, the level of stress hormones in your blood will drop.
Affection: There's a reason that a big, loving bear hug feels so good. Cuddling, hugging, and other non-sexual forms of touching flood our bodies with the bonding hormone, oxytocin, triggering the release of the other feel-good hormones while reducing stress hormones.
Laughter: Laughter really can be the best medicine. The National Institutes of Health says that A good, hearty laugh relieves physical tension and stress, and leaves your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes afterward.
Physical Activity: Moving your body each day keeps you healthy in many widely proven ways. One healthy benefit of daily movement is that it counteracts the effects of stress, allowing you to recover from the demands of life. 30-40 minutes of moderate exercise, like walking the dog, or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise is enough to gain stress completion benefits.
Creative Expression: Engaging in creative activities reduces anxiety by allowing our focus to shift from worries to the delightfully meditative process of creating while lighting up the part of our brain that helps to process emotions.
Emotional Crying: Intuitively we know that a big ol' cry makes us feel better - like releasing the valve on a pressure cooker - and science agrees, showing us that emotional tears flush stress hormones and other toxins out of our system while releasing oxytocin and endorphins. In addition, allowing ourselves to feel and release our emotions helps us avoid the negative health consequences of repressive coping.
Massage: Massage is an important way for many people to process and release stress. It combines the powerful restorative benefits of physical touch, positive social interaction, meditation, deep breathing, and pain relief all within a single session. Massage and many other forms of bodywork may seem like self-indulgence on the surface but are powerful tools to deal with stress and allow the body's systems to recover.
Pay attention to how you feel during the activities you partake. Make note of the activities during which you notice that your body and mind relax. In this way, you can accumulate a list of daily, weekly, or monthly practices you can prioritize to help you complete your stress cycles.
Not all stress is created equal so mild stress requires mild intervention - like breath work - while extreme stress may require a combination of interventions like bodywork combined with physical activity
Sure, we're going to get up and do the whole thing again tomorrow. The important thing is that we give our bodies these periods of respite from the stress to allow our systems to recover, recalibrate, and gain the strength to see us through the next round of adulting.
Conclusion: You-Time is a Necessity for Long-Term Mental and Physical Health
The stress cycle is a natural response that we all experience, but when stressors are a near-constant we can get caught in the stress response phase of the cycle. It's not necessary, or often even possible, to remove all of our stressors to avoid the negative health consequences of chronic stress.The key lies in completing the stress cycle which allows our bodies to return to a deactivated state. Many practices that may seem self-indulgent and low priority to some of us are actually powerful and very necessary tools to allow us to complete our body's stress response in a world where stress is everywhere, all the time. To this end, social interaction, regular bodywork, creative expression, physical activity, and frequent cuddling are invaluable tools to combat chronic stress and maintain optimal mental and physical health.
So the next time you think about canceling coffee with a friend, skipping your daily walk, or hesitating to book a massage because you're just too busy and you've got super important things to do, remember that just because those stolen moments feel pleasurable they aren't frivolous indulgences, they're important parts of your health and wellness maintenance routine.
⭐️ Mantra: My self-care routines are strategic steps toward better health and well-being that allow me to weather the ever-present stressors in my life with health, vibrancy, resiliency, and calm. ⭐️
Stay curious. Stay humble. Stay kind.