How do we bring our stress response back into balance? It’s all about completing the stress cycle, which we can do so in three ways: movement, touch, and sleep.
One thing I’m always working on with my clients, whether or not we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, is how to handle stress. It’s something we all feel—perhaps now more than before, given all the fear-based scarcity messages we’re receiving—and is a normal response to feeling like a resource, such as time, energy, attention, or money, is threatened. When our brains perceive this threat, they tell our bodies to release specific stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare us to deal with that threat.
This week, on Instagram Live, I talked again with friend and fellow therapist, Jesie Steffes, LPC, about how to manage stress. Jesie started with a reality check, reminding us that since stress is a normal biological response, a stress-free life isn’t realistic: “If that’s our goal, we’ll constantly be feeling like we’re failing ourselves.”
Releasing ourselves from that unrealistic stress-free goal can help us pinpoint when our stress response is appropriate versus when our stress response is out of balance. When in balance, a bit of stress helps us focus and improve our performance in critical moments. It can motivate us to meet a crucial deadline or stand our sacred ground in a difficult conversation. Healthy stress exists in a cycle:
→ It is triggered by a threat
→ We deal with the threat
→ Doing so relieves the physical manifestations of stress
A good way to understand this is to imagine you’re being chased by a lion. The lion is the stressor, the thing that causes you to feel stress. When you see the lion, your brain perceives a threat and tells your body to release stress hormones that prime you to fight or flee. You begin running. Luckily, you’re a fast runner and the lion gives up the chase. Now you’re exhausted, so you find a quiet place to rest, letting your muscles recover and the stress hormones that have flooded your body dissipate.
But out of balance, stress can impair our immune systems, cause us to catastrophize or fixate on things outside our control, or lead to anxiety or depression. When we go from stressor to stressor to stressor without giving our bodies time to recuperate, we are unable to complete that cycle and remain bathed in stress hormones. Everything feels harder to tackle (“Why can’t I just get out of bed when my alarm goes off?”) and things that ordinarily wouldn’t cause us to feel stress now do (“Why did I just snap at my partner? That question they asked was totally reasonable”).
So how do we bring our stress response back into balance? As Jesie and I discussed, it’s all about completing the stress cycle, which we can do so in three ways:
“Get some exercise,” is a common piece of advice for dealing with stress. However, for many of us, “exercise” has difficult associations. Maybe it takes us back to high school P.E. class, makes us think of diet culture, or leaves us dwelling on the body we wish we had rather than loving the body we have. Jesie suggested thinking of it instead as movement, explaining that one to complete the stress cycle is through “ joyful movement, things your body likes to do.” To that I would add that movement does not have to be aggressive—no need to go out and run 10 miles, unless that’s your thing. Dance in your living room, stretch, do chair yoga, or put on a favorite podcast and walk around the block a few times. Move in a way that appropriately challenges your body and leaves you feeling good physically and mentally.
Touch’s comforting power is well documented. The American Institute of Stress recommends leaning in for a hug that lasts at least 20 seconds. This triggers your brain to release oxytocin, a hormone that is produced during a wide range of physical activity—cuddling, nursing, childbirth, intimacy—and helps create feelings of safety, comfort, and bonding, and also helps bring down your heart rate. So when you feel caught in a stress cycle, approach a loved one for a hug, a gentle backrub, or a cuddle.
Stress and sleep can exist in a negative feedback loop: When we’re stressed, sleep can help, but it can be harder to fall asleep, especially if we’re stressed about not getting enough sleep. (Take a deep breath!) To untangle that negative feedback loop, Jesie suggested thinking of yourself like a baby: If you’re trying to get a baby to go to sleep you’re not going to play with it and overstimulate it and then just tuck it into its crib and turn off the lights. Instead, you’re going to take time to help the baby relax before bed. Maybe you’ll give it a bath, you’ll sing songs or listen to music, you’ll read a bit, or you’ll just sit quietly together. Do the same for yourself: Set a routine that encourages your body to unwind from the day. Try journaling, meditating, reading, or listening to soothing music before bed. If sleep still eludes you, try your best not to stress about it; instead, recognize that even just lying still gives your body a chance to rest and complete the stress cycle.
In the age of social distancing, it might be hard or impossible to do some of those things. Jesie suggests seeing this as an opportunity to try new ways of completing that cycle. Maybe your go-to is lifting weights at the gym, but the gym is closed. “This is a time to explore and to get a little mindful,” Jesie says. “How can I get pretty close to what works for me?”
To learn more about the stress cycle, I recommend checking out Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, or booking a telehealth counseling session for more support.
What steps will you take today to complete your stress cycle?