For such a broadly experienced emotion, very few people actually understand how stress, and the stress cycle, works. Like most emotional responses, stress is an evolutionary reaction that has a pretty important function (the fight-or-flight experience).
When you place this experience in the early days of humankind, the process was pretty clear-cut: stress was triggered by a threat meaning you needed to physically defend yourself or you’d leg it. If you survived, the stress cycle would close pretty naturally and you’d move on. These days, things are a little more complicated, which leaves us with hurdles in properly processing stress or feelings of anxiety.
If you find it difficult to wind down after a stressful experience, or maybe notice that anxiety creeps into your daily experience more often than you’d like it to, a better understanding of the stress cycle can be a good way to build healthy habits to manage that. Of course, a mental health expert is always going to be the best place to find a personalised mental health plan, but tips in this space may be a nice additional resource for you, too.
For that reason, and because it’s National Mental Health Month, I’ve chatted with Ash King – a PhD candidate, mental health educator and content creator and practitioner at the Indigo Project – about stress cycles and some advice on how to better work with them.
What’s a stress cycle?
King explained that “our stress cycle is our bodies’ physiological response to stress”.
“It starts with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (something we also call our ‘fight or flight’ response) when we become aware of a stressor (that is, something demanding/challenging/or potentially threatening),” she explained.
When this process kicks off, you’ll likely notice physical responses like shortness of breath, tight muscles or a fast heart rate.
“The purpose of the system is to help fire up the body to tend to the stressor – back in the day we used to fight it off (gladiator style) or flee (run like hell). Once our body clocks that the stressor has been dealt with, our heart rate and breathing can return to normal, and the stress cycle can complete.”
Why can’t our bodies properly process stress these days?
In a lot of cases, (obviously, every person’s experience is unique, but generally speaking) the stressor we’re being faced with is less direct – hopefully, you’re not being chased by sabre-toothed lions too often. The things inflicting stress on our lives are more “chronic”, King shared.
“Can anyone say, global pandemic?”
“In such cases, the stressor might be ongoing and there is no active way to confront it, so our bodies remain perpetually in this ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. This is kind of like leaving the hotplate on when you’ve taken off the pot. It’s incredibly taxing on the body and the mind, and it’s a recipe for chronic health issues,” she said.
In the simplest of terms, there is often no clear solution or course of action that can be taken to handle the kinds of stressors we tend to see today.
Okay, that sucks. What can we do though?
Thankfully, there are stress management strategies you can use to tell your brain that it’s safe to calm down and ‘close the stress cycle’.
“When possible, we should do what we can to confront the stressor,” King explained.
“This might look like completing an urgent work task, tending to a crying baby or having an uncomfortable but important conversation with your partner.”
But, as we’ve covered, that’s not always possible. So, in those tricky situations, King suggests that you try and focus on what you can and cannot control “so that you can direct your energy and focus to things that you can actually do something about”.
And in extreme cases where you really can’t land on an actionable response to your stressor, King shared that sending a physical message to your brain can be a good option.
“Sometimes, you’ll need to help the brain out to let it know, ‘It’s cool, I’m safe, We’re good’ and allow the body to complete the stress cycle. Some of the best ways to do this include:
“Physical stuff: Running, dancing, swimming – something to get the body moving and the heart rate up. The physical component allows the body to exert energy and then return to its natural rhythm, thereby signalling to the body that the threat has passed and the stress cycle can complete.
Social stuff: Hugging, laughing, sharing and bonding (pets included). Social connection offers a space of safety and belonging, allowing the body to clock that it’s no longer under threat.
Other stuff: Having a big cry, punching a pillow, creativity, making music, progressive muscle relaxation.”
Give these tips on how to manage stress a try and see if they help the next time you’re working through an icky, stressful situation.