Ever notice how difficult it is to “chill” after having gone through a stressful period? Maybe you find yourself still biting your nails even after your exam is done. Maybe you had a stressful altercation with your best friend, and even though you made up, you still find yourself anxiously checking your phone to see if she texted you. Even though you got through whatever was causing you stress, you’re still experiencing all your usual uncomfortable symptoms like sweating, jaw clenching, and whirlwind emotions. This may be because, despite having finished the stressful thing, you have not completed the stress response cycle.
Before understanding how to complete the stress response cycle, it is important to understand the difference between stress and a stressor. Stress is the response to a perceived threat or danger and can cause physiological responses such as sweating and increased heart rate and emotional reactions such as feeling worried or anxious. Stressors, on the other hand, are the things that cause these emotional and physiological reactions, such as an exam, presentation, or going on a first date. Stressors activate our bodies’ stress response, and our stress response is a result of many years of evolution and was a necessary survival mechanism (Hadany et al., 2006). However, our stress response has stuck with us through time even though we no longer need to worry about things like running away from hungry lions.
So, just because you’ve addressed the stressor (like finishing your exam) doesn’t mean that you’ve properly addressed the stress, and your body may still be feeling the effects of the stressor. This is because our body has a more difficult time recovering from modern day stressors. Also, many modern-day stressors (such as dealing with a stressful co-worker or always worrying about money) are chronic and do not have a clear beginning and end. It is especially important to find ways to complete the stress cycle so your body knows it can calm down. If we don’t, many of us experience anxiety, depression or burnout. In some cases, we cope with stress in harmful ways such as alcohol abuse or eating disorders.
In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Dr. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski describe seven useful ways to complete the stress response cycle that we can all integrate into our lives:
Physical Activity. The authors say that physical activity is the best way to complete the stress response cycle so your body knows it’s safe. Any kind of body movement like running, dancing, or tensing all your muscles then shaking them out is a great option.
Breathing. Breathing is a very effective way to complete the stress response, especially when the breaths are deep and low. The authors suggest breathing in for a count of five, holding for a count of five, and breathing out for a count of ten, repeating as many times as you like.
Positive social interaction. Engaging in casual and friendly social interaction is a great way to tell your body that you’re safe. Call a friend or simply try to engage with and say hi to people that you pass in a day.
Laughter. Deep belly laughter is another great stress fighter. Unfortunately, polite social laughter won’t do the trick so you will want to find a way to truly laugh.
Affection. Sharing a long hug with someone you care about and trust is an excellent way to complete the stress cycle.
Having a good cry. The saying “big girls don’t cry” is simply not true. Having a good cry is a very powerful way to relieve stress, so don’t hold back your tears. The authors suggest watching a sad movie and feeling the emotions alongside the characters.
Creative expression. Creativity is also a very powerful tool. Whatever form works for you, whether it’s painting, dancing, writing, or playing an instrument, this is a great way to let your body know you’re okay, and you’re likely to feel much better afterwards.
The seven tricks are useful ways to complete the stress cycle and are worth keeping as tools in your self-care toolbox. I highly recommend reading the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle for a more thorough understanding of the topic. If you prefer to listen, the authors have discussed this topic on many podcasts, including on Unlocking Us with Brené Brown.
Need a little extra help dealing with stress? Our Team here at Uprise would love to help you out! Reach out here! We offer virtual or in-person sessions from downtown Ottawa!
Hadany, L., Beker, T., Eshel, I., & Feldman, M. W. (2006). Why is stress so deadly? An evolutionary perspective. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1588), 881-885.
Nagoski, E., & Amelia Nagoski, D. M. A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.
About the Author:
Gabriella Hilkes is a Social Media Intern at Uprise Psychology & Wellness. She is currently a Masters student in Experimental Psychology at Carleton University and plans to continue her education in the field of Counselling Psychology afterwards. Gabriella works hard at maintaining a work-life balance and integrate mindfulness and self-care practices daily.