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The alarm, resistance, and exhaustion phases of the stress response cycle help your body respond to stress. Learning how to complete the stress cycle can help you cope.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It could be something as simple as an approaching deadline or as emotional as the death of a loved one triggering your stress levels.
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Whatever the cause, many people dealing with a stressful situation will go through the stress response cycle. While there isn’t one way to deal with stress, completing this natural set of steps can help you manage your situation in a healthy way.
There are simple ways to help yourself process your stress responses effectively so that your mind and body can recover.
To understand the stress response cycle, you must first understand how stress affects the body.
When you encounter an acute stressor or danger, one area of the brain called the amygdala sends signals to another area called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts as the brain’s command center, transporting information through the nervous system to the rest of the body.
When the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, the adrenal glands respond by releasing the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream.
This can lead to various physiological changes, such as rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, energy surge and increased alertness.
Your body’s complex response to stress is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s the same strategy that animals and early human ancestors used when encountering danger.
Once the sense of threat or danger has passed, your parasympathetic nervous system puts the “brake” on and reduces the body’s stress response. But you can stay alert to observe if you feel safe and have achieved balance in your body.
If you still feel unsafe, the stress hormones will increase and you may experience symptoms such as:
- poor concentration
If you can’t complete the stress cycle, your body may repeat its stress response. Long-term and chronic stress can take its toll, leading to:
- heart disease
- stomach ulcers
- sleep disturbance
- psychiatric disorders
There are several research-based ways to complete the stress cycle and manage your body’s response to a tense situation. Consider the tips below to help you cope.
In a fight, flight or freeze scenario, being active can help you survive the threat and keep your body safe. You can mimic this natural response by exercising.
Consider performing the following activities:
- to jog
- play your favorite sport
- to dance
Regardless of the physical activity you choose, try to experiment with activities that you enjoy. Everybody is different.
Doing something creative, such as drawing, writing, knitting, gardening, or cooking, can help your body recover from a stressful event and increase energy levels. The key is to try something you enjoy.
Laughter is a helpful way to release and express any emotions you are bottled up. Some easy ways to make you laugh are by conjuring up a funny story, watching a funny movie, or visiting some friends who will make you laugh.
Crying is another way your body releases stress. If you suppress your tears, you could be holding yourself back from being a natural part of your recovery.
Research from 2020 indicates that physical comfort from a loved one can help mimic the safety step of the stress response cycle. If you agree to touch and feel safe, physical comfort can support your mental and physical health.
Some experts recommend a long hug of 20 seconds (minimum), which helps trigger the release of oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone.” Another option is to cuddle with a pet, which can improve your mental health and reduce stress.
You can also provide yourself with physical affection by:
- self massage
- move your hand on your chest in small circular motions
- hug yourself in a hug
Slow, deep breathing can help your body regulate its stress response. Some examples of deep breathing exercises are:
- square breath: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds
- 4,7,8 breath: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds
Exercises, such as tai chi, qi gong, and yoga, combine deep breathing with flowing movements to create calmness.
Getting enough rest, including a full night’s sleep, can help your body recover from stressful events. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
Dealing with a stressful event can be tricky. But finding ways to mimic the stress response cycle, which includes physical activity, finding a safe place, and rest can help you cope with your stress.
You may want to try a breathing app such as: Calm, Insight Timer, or KORU to help you regulate your stress levels throughout the day.
If stress interferes with your daily life, becomes severe, or doesn’t go away, consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you identify other strategies for coping.