Understanding the Stress Cycle
We all know that stress is bad. It can ruin your day, hurt your body, and cloud your mind. But do you know how to complete the stress cycle? How to rid your body and brain of harmful stress hormones and get yourself back to feeling on steady psychological ground?
Today I want to share the number-one take-away I gained from Emily Nagoski’s new book about women and burnout: how to complete the stress cycle. I highly recommend reading the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, if you’d like to know more.
Understanding the Fight, Flight, & Freeze Response
When stress is triggered, we experience a physiological response in our brains and in our bodies more broadly.
When our brains notice a stressor, “it activates a generic ‘stress response,” writes Nagoski, “a cascade of neurological and hormonal activity that initiates physiological changes to help you survive: epinephrine acts instantly to push blood into your muscles, glucocorticoids keep you going, and endorphins help you ignore how uncomfortable all of this is. Your heart beats faster, so your blood pumps harder, so your blood pressure increases and you breathe more quickly…your muscles tense; your sensitivity to pain diminishes; your attention is alert and vigilant, focusing on the short-term, here-and-now thinking…your entire body and mind change in response to the perceived threat.”
In a very primal way, our brains are designed this way to keep us safe. The stress response is designed to help us escape, flee, run. It was designed with the stress of a rattlesnake or saber tooth tiger in mind: things you’ll have to literally run from.
Complete the Stress Cycle
To calm the entire system down, the cycle has to complete. Once our fight/flight/freeze response is triggered, your brain and body wants to know you’ve escaped the threat. It needs to know that you out-ran the tiger.
But many stressors today don’t look much like the saber tooth tigers and rattlesnakes our ancestors had to dodge. Maybe they come in the form of micro-aggressions at work, like when a colleague explains something to you that you’ve been studying for the better part of a decade. Maybe it’s the stress of overwhelm at home, juggling caring for aging parents with caring for your own children and trying to be a great boss on top of it all.
Many of our stress triggers today would be completely inappropriate to literally run from. Can you imagine getting up and fleeing the office the next time a colleague is passive-aggressive in a meeting?
Instead, most of us bottle it up. We slap a smile on our face. We might say, “Actually, Todd, since this is the project I landed for us, I do believe I need to be there at their initial client on-boarding meeting.”
Meanwhile our heart is pumping, our palms are sweaty, and stress hormones have flooded our body and brain.
Rinse our Brains and Bodies of Stress
There’s a reason why exercise is recommended as the number-one best way to reduce stress: it’s the fastest way to show your brain that you’ve escaped the threat. It’s the fastest way to complete the stress cycle and essentially rinse the stress hormones out of your brain.
Here’s how Nagoski explains it:
“When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do? You run. When you’re stressed out by the bureaucracy and hassle of living in the twenty-first century, what do you do?
You run. Or swim. Or dance around your living room, singing along to Beyonce, or sweat it out in a Zumba class, or do literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply.
For how long? Between twenty and sixty minutes a day does it for most folks. And it should be most days — after all, you experience stress most days, so you should completely the stress response cycle most days, too.”
She goes on to provide a bunch of different suggestions for folks who are not able to exercise or simply absolutely completely abhor exercise to complete the stress cycle, including deep breathing, tensing your muscles, and more.
Reading this section was a complete ah-ha moment for me, as Oprah might say. I’ve always known that regular exercise keeps me feeling good, mentally and physically, but I never fully understood why. Now when I am on the road for a speaking tour and dragging myself to the hotel gym is the LAST thing I want to do, I think if it less about working out, and more about working out the stress hormones from my brain.
Understanding the physiological aspect of exercise in this way makes me feel better about just dialing it in on those days in the exercise bike in the gym. I know I’m not there to build muscle or burn fat, but I’m still going because I’m literally going to rinse the stress out of my body and brain.
It brings a whole new meaning to the concept of working out for your sanity, not your vanity.
How do you recover from stress?
Does completing the stress cycle sound familiar to you? How to you find ways to show your brain you escaped the threat? I’d love to hear your best stress-busting strategies in the comments section below.