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Stress has become our new collective obsession.
Just the other day, while standing in line at the grocery store, I saw at least six magazines, all with features on stress. Stress this and stress that.
All this talk about stress is stressing us out!
And, of course, we need to talk about it because it’s everywhere, living in our nervous system and flowing through our bodies.
But stress is not the bad guy—we simply haven’t been taught how to deal with it constructively and “correctly.”
Stress wants you alive and safe.
But most of us don’t understand how to complete the “stress cycle,” which is the physiological process the body has to go through so it can return to homeostasis or the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
The reason why stress feels so overwhelming in the modern world is that, now, we have a stress response to almost everything: a work email, our kid having a meltdown, the store running out of something we need, and our car breaking down.
While these things can be a pain in the butt, they are not immediately life-threatening, which is what the stress cycle was designed to do: keep us alive.
However, there is also a reason for the way our stress response has evolved.
The brain is built to learn and experience physiological changes—such as a new neural structure being formed—depending on what it is “resting upon.” In a nutshell, your experiences shape how your brain works, what it looks for, and how it “deals” with stressors (or the things that trigger our stress response).
When you receive an angry email from your boss, your body reacts just as it would if a lion was chasing you down. Why is that? Because in the modern world, pissing off your boss could mean the end of your income, which affects your survival and status, which affects the quality of your life, which affects how you will take care of yourself and your family, which may lead you to not being able to take care of yourself and your family, which could lead to banishment from society and, ultimately, death.
This, by the way, is why we have an innate fear of rejection and why rejection is one of the three core wounds (the others being abandonment and betrayal). Rejection could lead us to banishment and, ultimately, death.
We are designed to steer clear of death as much as possible.
That is how fast the mind and the survival system work. Today, it’s not a lion that may kill you, but your boss being angry enough about something to fire you, which affects your safety and security—even if it takes longer than a lion attack.
Our stressors have changed, but the stress cycle has not.
Even though these stressors may not be immediately life-threatening (like someone chasing you, wielding a knife, and shouting, “I’m gonna kill you!”), they can still threaten our idea of our survival and the way our society is structured. Everything is essentially about our “place in the race” from a survival standpoint.
According to the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, most people have thousands of uncompleted stress cycles living in the body. This leads to a feeling of constant, low-level anxiety and a sense that we can’t quite fully relax. Physically, we haven’t yet told the body that the threat is over and it’s okay to return to normal functions.
As the book explains, “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live.” Being in the middle of an uncompleted stress cycle can feel like a continuous buzz around your energetic field.
We can feel jumpy, out of sorts, or even physically ill.
That’s no fun.
It’s time to start looking at how we can complete the stress cycle, which will always involve doing something physical.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala produces hormones that make us ready to fight, flight, or freeze (which is the “play dead” response if we are too weak or small to fight or flight). This is so we can deal with the immediate threat.
When the stress cycle is activated, hormones start tearing through our blood vessels, our inner ear closes, our digestion slows, our pupils dilate to let in more light, our reasoning ability goes out the window, and our heart races. Meanwhile, the repair of our cells ceases, our immune system is compromised, and our brain’s “negativity bias” is on high alert.
One of two things will happen: you will defeat the threat, or you will die.
If you die, there is nothing left to do (obviously).
If you defeat the threat, you have to do something physical to tell the body that it is now safe again to relax and resume regular programming—the lion has been killed! The madman is caught! Success! Yay! Let’s dance and celebrate and drink ale! All is well again. The body relaxes and people move on with their lives.
But most of us do not do this.
We stop at the second part. Why? Because, in today’s world, with the constant stimuli, there is another stressor waiting around the corner to take your attention and have you start the cycle again without completing the last one.
And we do this over and over and over again.
We wake up, have a small argument with our partner, and leave the house irritated—stress cycle #1 is not completed.
We get in the car and immediately get cut off by someone—starting stress cycle #2.
We yell at the driver, relieving some of the pressure, only to see a text come in from our boss about a missed deadline at work—stress cycle #3 starts, riding the coattails of the two previous uncompleted stress cycles.
Boy, I’m cross-eyed just thinking about it!
Do you suffer from constipation, headaches, stomach pain, or any kind of gastrointestinal problem, anxiety, poor sleep, lack of energy, and mood swings that seem to come out of nowhere?
While all of these can have a myriad of causes, not completing our stress cycles is another contributor.
Think about pressure—pressure building up each day as most of the stress cycles we experience stop at the second step. There has been no release of all that energy, not to mention hormones.
When women give birth, they often shake for a few minutes due to all the hormones and emotions and love and exhaustion they are feeling all at once. The body needs some way to channel a release of all that energy, so it shakes.
We need to allow ourselves to shake.
Stress is a normal cycle: threat, fight/flight/freeze response, victory or defeat, and the release of pressure (physically doing something). It is designed to keep us alive. It’s natural.
Managing stress and understanding it is what we are going for. We need to stop punishing ourselves for feeling stressed. We’re human, and quite frankly, we’re designed to feel it.
Try this. The next time you have a stressor and feel your bodily response, remember to complete the stress cycle when the threat has been dealt with.
What can this look like? Frankly, anything.
Dance, scream while jumping up and down and saying, “Yay! I did it!”, laugh, cry, happy cry, allow your body to shake, go for a quick jog or walk, find some way to tell the body the threat is over and you are okay now.
Start to do this with everything that you experience the stress cycle with. There is honestly no better use of your time and resources. Teaching the body that it is safe again will improve every part of your life, including your self-acceptance and self-approval.
I was recently waiting for the letter from my doctor for my mammogram results. When I got the letter saying everything was normal, I completed the stress cycle by crying and then taking a few long, deep breaths. The crying itself maybe lasted 10 seconds, but it released any stress I felt while anticipating the contents of the letter.
We can reduce the length of our stress cycles by becoming more aware of how the stress lives in the body and making a conscious effort to physically tell the nervous system when we are safe again.
And before I close, I want to add some quick woo woo here which is related: completing the stress cycle is the twin sister of clearing your energy field. I talk about this frequently in my work because many of us walk around with other people’s stress cycle energies (amongst other things) bouncing around our field.
How do you clear your energy field?
It’s simple: sit, get present, do a body scan. Notice where there is tension, anxiety, or discomfort. Name the energy and where it lives in the body. Now, with intent, say the following: “This is not mine, I release this back to Source.” Repeat this phrase until you feel the energy leave your field.
Remember: energy has no will of its own; we command it where to go. Energy cannot “stick” to you without your permission, which is something many people have not been taught or do not realize.
I’m creating a more compassionate relationship with my stress cycle. I’m reminding myself I am not a “bad” or “weak” person for feeling stress or being triggered by stressors. I’m becoming more responsive when a stress cycle hits and thanking my survival system for showing me what’s safe and what isn’t.
May we all find constructive ways to complete our stress cycles.