The Stress-Response Cycle: How to Move Through Stress
To follow up on my last post, it’s time to get practical! What do we do with stress? We’re often told to reduce our stress by taking on fewer responsibilities when we’re feeling overwhelmed. That certainly can help, but what’s more important is to learn to move through the stress response cycle so that when we are faced with stressors our bodies have the capacity to handle them. This requires learning to listen to our bodies and our emotions.
Don’t Confuse the Stressor with the Stress
A stressor is something that causes stress, such as a semester of school. Stress is that feeling of fight, flight or freeze. Often, we believe that we’ll feel less stressed once we’ve dealt with the stressor. I often tell myself that when the next term at school is over, I’ll feel energized and happy again. Then, the end of term comes and after a week I notice I’m still feeling exhausted and irritable. This is because I was confusing the stressor with the stress. The stressor may be long gone and successfully conquered, but the reason I still feel irritable and exhausted is that my body hasn’t moved through the stress response cycle and come out the other side.1 Can you relate? Let me explain.
Stress-Response Cycle: Listening to our Bodies
Our body’s natural tendency in times of stress is to move through the beginning, middle and end of our response to stress. When we are in fight, flight or freeze, a lot of adrenaline is pumping through our bodies. Our body’s natural tendency is to find a way to expend that energy. With fight, it would be throwing punches, flight would be to run, and even in freeze, our natural tendency when we come out of freeze is to shake. Once we’ve expended that energy, our natural tendency is to find safety and to rest. This is the full cycle: trigger (beginning); energy expending (middle); safety and rest (end).1
Unfortunately, in our culture we’ve been taught to suppress the messages we get from our bodies. Our culture is uncomfortable with feelings and so we’re told to suck it up; we’re told that everyone is stressed and that’s just what life is. We override our body’s messages because they’re not always compatible with work or with the social context at hand. When we keep overriding the messages our bodies send us, our bodies become stuck in a state of stress. When we never feel like we can escape the feeling of stress, we start to cope in ways that are less healthy, such as developing addictions or lashing out at people when we don’t mean to. This is because there’s so much pent up energy and it hasn’t had a chance to move through us.1
How to Complete the Cycle
We probably don’t want to be fighting people when we’re stuck in traffic or running out of our cars after a car veers into our lane. Thankfully, there are more practical ways to complete the stress-response cycle.
The Middle Part of the Cycle: (The part where you let the energy out)
- Physical activity: This helps to re-calibrate the nervous system. It lets your body complete the middle part of the cycle and expend all of that adrenaline that was secreted from the various stress-related triggers in your life. Any kind of physical activity will do, as long as it gets you moving and gets your heart-rate up.
- Allow yourself to have a good cry or a primal scream. The kind of cry where you sob for 10 minutes and then have a big sigh of relief. This lets the emotion move through you instead of getting trapped in your body.
- Journaling: Writing your thoughts down can sometimes offer a feeling of release and relief. You can keep an ongoing journal of your thoughts and feelings and/or you can write them down and then rip them up. The act of ripping up the pages can also be relieving.
- Art: Finding creative ways to express emotion and dispel stress. You might think you’re not particularly artsy, so maybe you want to try coming to something like our Open Studio Sessions to start where you can get some gentle guidance and try some new things out?
The End of the Cycle: (The part where you rest)
- Seeking affection from someone you trust. This is proven to be a very effective way to calm the nervous system.
- Identify people and places that you can trust to provide space for you to feel your feels.
- Sleep: Do what you can to prioritize it, and seek help from a doctor and/or counsellor when you’re having consistent trouble sleeping.
- Grooming: For some, it can be meditative and give a feeling of self-care.
- Engaging in anything you find
Throughout the Cycle:
- Mindfulness: Start cultivating a mindfulness practice, even if you start out with just one minute per day.
- Mindfulness allows us to notice what we’re focusing on, notice what we’re feeling and then have control in deciding what we want to focus on and how we want to express that feeling.
- Headspace is an app that offers a free mindfulness series to get you started, and the app allows you to start with mindfulness exercises as short, or as long as you want.
- Counselling: A counsellor can help you learn to move through your stress response cycle in a way that feels right for you. They can also help you to make sense of stress responses and emotions that feel confusing and stuck.
Remember, this can be very difficult, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture that teaches you to suppress your feelings and your body’s signals.
The most important part of moving through the stress response cycle is to be patient and kind to yourself. You’re learning something new, it takes time and you don’t need to do it alone.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY