The Stress Cycle
Stress has become a household word, and something we not only talk about regularly, but have come to expect regularly. Stress has become the number one cause of workplace disability, and in the past year alone, 74% of people have been so stressed they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to statistics from mentalhealth.org.
Just because the ‘stressor’ has gone,
it doesn’t mean the ‘stress’ itself has…..
One of the reasons we tend to suffer with stress more acutely today than ever before, is that we’re not actively doing things that let our bodies and nervous systems know that it’s ok to relax, and that the stress is over. Recall a time when you’ve felt heightened stress or a sensation of being overwhelmed; perhaps whilst stuck in traffic, in a high-pressure meeting, completing a deadline or giving a presentation. If any of these situations cause you to feel stress, it’s likely that your body is reacting in the same way it would if it was being chased by a predator and trying to escape a near-death situation. Thousands of years ago, we’d act just as animals do – we’d either be devoured and become some animal’s dinner (which in the modern world equates to succumbing to stress through a heart attack or stroke, and in many cases severe burnout), or we’d run away, escape, breathe a sigh of relief and reflexively shake it off. The three actions of running, breathing and shaking vigorously would all subconsciously tell our brains that we were safe and out of danger. Recall again that situation that causes you stress. What do you do after that stressful occasion has passed? Many of us might turn to alcohol or food, television, high sugar snacks, cigarettes, drugs. Those who head to the gym or go for a run to relieve stress have the advantage of doing something our genes have evolved to recognise as ‘stress relieving’ since we literally were running from predators all those thousands of years ago. The problem there however, arises in cases of over-exercising or exercise addiction, that ends up only causing more stress to the body and mind….
Stress can be addictive. That buzz we get from doing something productive, feeling needed, completing tasks and goals, and always having a focus can cause us to get stuck in the cycle of feeling stressed, yet compulsively creating more stress for ourselves. (In the form of saying ‘yes’ to every single opportunity, even if we have no time or energy left to do it, over-working or filling our calendars to the brim). The American Institute of Stress offers several questions to aid in figuring out if you could be a stress ‘addict’, including; ‘Do you thrive on tight deadlines?’; ‘Do you leave things until the last minute?”; ‘Does it take you a few days to feel like you’re on vacation? [and] when you’re on vacation do you spend much of it thinking about work?’; ‘Do you lack time to see your friends or participate in hobbies you enjoy?’. It seems that stress can even be as addictive as drugs in many cases; “In addition to the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress also releases dopamine, a “feel good” chemical. Dopamine encourages repeat behaviours by activating the reward centre in our brain and may be at the heart of many addictive behaviours and substance abuse issues” say researchers and doctors from the American Institute of Stress.
Whilst creating ambitious to-do lists is useful for productivity and providing that little boost of fulfilment when we tick off tasks, those very same lists can actually prevent us from achieving meaningful tasks. To-do lists tend to encourage more attention to be given to the easy-to-do but not particularly effective tasks. We might tick off ten ‘tasks’ in a day (things like answering emails, doing the laundry, buying a relative’s birthday present etc), but if that one fulfilling and meaningful task that will actually make a difference to your life isn’t ticked off, you’ll still end the day with a sense of uneasy guilt, stress, and a feeling of being ‘stuck’…. The stress cycle is quite similar in this respect; too often we pay attention to removing the small and pretty insignificant stressors from our lives, without paying attention to the stress itself, or the big and important stressors that will make a real difference.
Why is Stress a Problem?
Other than making us feel emotionally unwell and downgrading our enjoyment and quality of life. Stress has a very real impact upon physical health, especially if it’s the long-term, low-level chronic stress many people are living with today. Stress weakens the immune system, creates physical tension, encourages addictive and compulsive behaviour, can cause depression, burnout, relationship issues, and feelings of hopelessness. A worrying indicator of where we’re heading in terms of stress trends, is the mentalhealth.org statistic that found 70% of older adults reported feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope in the last year, compared to 97% of younger people.
Two Ways to Deal with Stress
Knowledge is no longer as powerful as it might have once been. There’s ‘knowledge’ everywhere. Turn on your TV, browse the internet, scroll through social media and there will be information there waiting to fill your mind. What we do with it, and how much we really understand it however, is what really counts. There are a couple of useful ways to practice reducing the amount of stress in your mind and body, and they’re powerful when we start using them purposefully.
- Breaking the Stress Cycle
This technique requires us to observe how we’re feeling, and tune in to our physical, mental and emotional ‘symptoms’ as they arise. These symptoms can range from an increase in heartrate and perspiration, to racing thoughts and even nausea. The more subtle the symptom, the more sensitive we need to be to feel them, and the more practice it may take to sense them.
Within the stress cycle, it’s in the space between ‘stress’ and ‘reaction to stress’ that we can start practicing observing our reactions, and begin breaking the cycle. Of course, the cycle can be broken at any point – many of us may not realise we need to take action until we’re at the point of ‘increased sensitivity to stress’, when a loved one may point out how ‘stressed’ we seem. The earlier we can break the cycle though, the healthier and happier we’ll be. Depending upon how deep you’re into your own stress cycle, you may be able to observe the stress as it arises, or you’ll be able to pick up on the symptoms of chronic stress:
Symptoms of instant reactions to stress:
- Change in breathing pattern (short, shallow breath, holding breath)
- Tightening of muscles (clenching jaw, tensing shoulders / stomach / hands)
- Uneasy feeling in stomach
- Increased heat beat
- Anger or frustration
- Feeling a need to control or feeling a loss of control
- Worry or fear
- Racing thoughts
- Quicker reactions
Techniques to break the stress cycle at this point:
- Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing
- Making sound (singing / sighing / chanting)
- Consciously relaxing muscles
- Shaking / dancing / jumping
- Thinking of someone or something you love, or something you’re really looking forward to
- Thinking of 5 things you’re grateful for
- Writing down how you feel
- Repeating a mantra or affirmation
Symptoms of chronic stress:
- Low energy
- Low mood levels or depression
- Change in hunger
- Cravings for sugar or heavy foods
- Sleep issues
- Increased sensitivity to stress
- Low libido
- Increased heartbeat
- Aches and pains
- Gut issues (nausea / constipation / diarrhoea)
- Lowered immune system
- Loss of enjoyment in life
- Quicker to react emotionally (crying, anger, irritability et)
Techniques to break the stress cycle at this point:
- Spend time in a place you feel safe and relaxed
- Socialise with loved ones
- Practice slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing 3 times a day
- Get a massage
- Practice Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Swimming or Yoga
- Frequent exercise
- Spend time in nature
- Practice hot / cold therapy
- Take a digital detox
- Cut down on sugar and alcohol
- Get more sun exposure
- Listen to music
- Join a community group (dancing, choir, crafting etc)
- Learn meditation techniques
- Create boundaries between work and leisure
2. Techniques For Completing The Stress Cycle
This is a part of relieving stress that not many of us think about. Remember; the stressor and the stress are two different things. Just because the stressor (the traffic, presentation, intimidating manager, deadline etc) is gone, doesn’t mean the stress in the body and mind is. Our nervous system has to get the message that we’re safe and sound, and the brain we’ve been busy evolving for millions of years (that same brain that previously experienced stress when we were running away from predators), still needs that same trigger to move from stress to relaxation. Repressing natural urges and needs leads to a build-up of stress, so allowing the stress to properly process and release includes practicing things we’re naturally evolved to do.
- Emotional release: cry, shout, scream
- Make noise: sing, chant, sigh
- Do some vigorous exercise: get your blood pumping to mimic escaping that predator. Run, dance, skip, jump
- Shake: Animals naturally ‘shake off’ stress, and until we started` considering ourselves separate from animals and more self-conscious, we would do the same. Shaking is incredibly effective, simply shake all your limbs, or visit a TRE (trauma release exercise) to help ‘unlock’ your body’s innate ability to naturally shake stress away.
- Visualise: Athletes famously use visualisation to add another level to their training. Mirror neurons in the brain become activated when we harness visualisation techniques. In brain imaging scans, parts of the brain that light up during exercise also light up when we intentionally visualise exercising. The same is true with completing the stress cycle. If you’re having a difficult time with work colleagues or your partner, visualise something that would help you resolve any conflict or make you feel more relaxed. Focus on making the situation as real as you can. Imagine the smells, colours, sounds, textures, and how you’d be feeling emotionally.
- Human contact: Whilst we’re apparently the most ‘connected’ we’ve ever been via the internet; we’re more physically disconnected than ever before. We once lived in close-knit tribes, villages and trusted communities, with plenty of human contact every day. In our modern world however, it’s easy to go a full day without speaking to another real person, let alone come into physical contact with them. Our bodies and minds know we’re safe when we do things like hugging, especially if it’s for more than 20 seconds. 20 seconds is enough to elicit the relaxation response, and start moving the body from stress to serene.
- Breathe: Consciously` breathing slowly in and out of the nose can start bringing the body back from the brink of a meltdown. Breathing slowly and deeply can’t be done when we’re running away from a dangerous situation, so when we’re practicing breathing in a calm way, the body and mind know its ok to feel calm and relaxed.
Completing the stress cycle is as important as breaking it. So, if you aren’t able to jump into the cycle quick enough to break it, or if you’ve been dealing with lingering stress for a long time, make sure you prioritise completing it and letting it leave your body and mind.