stress response cycle

Stress. You’ve certainly heard of it. You are honestly probably stressed about something right now. In this day and age, it seems that everyone we know is stressed and moving at a fast pace, fluttering between deadlines and projects, working themselves to the bone. People can feel stressed from their personal lives as well. It seems like “stressed” is most people’s default state of being, and let me tell you, this is having a bad effect on your health. But by completing the stress response cycle, you can better deal with it in a healthy way.

What are the effects of chronic stress?

Stress is “a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.” When stress isn’t totally dealt with, it can cause long-term effects on your physical and mental health. In the book “Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” author Emily Nagoski talks in-depth about the stress response cycle and how stress can affect your sex life and reproductive health. Nagoski writes that if left unmanaged, chronic stress can suppress your menstrual cycle, decrease fertility, increase the chances of miscarriage, and even increase pain during sex. That’s a big deal, people! Outside of this aspect of your life, chronic stress can exacerbate depression and anxiety, cause digestive problems, increase headaches, cause trouble sleeping, and impair your memory and ability to concentrate. 

What is the stress response cycle?

Stress is part of a cycle, and in order to feel and deal with stress in a healthy way, we must complete the stress response cycle. Nagoski also has an entire book dedicated to this topic called “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.” She writes that our bodies are wired to react to stress in a way that will protect us from attacks, like how back in the day we needed to fight predators or run away from a lion. When your body perceives a threat or stressor, it will cue your hypothalamus to sound the internal alarm. The hypothalamus is in your brain and tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline increases your heart rate and boosts your energy, while the cortisol increases glucose in your bloodstream to enhance your body’s ability to repair tissues. The cortisol will also quiet things in your body that you won’t need in a survival-type situation, such as your digestive system. 

When all of this is happening in your body, this cues the classic fight, flight, or freeze response to determine how to protect yourself from the stressor. It is important to note, however, that your nervous system chooses this response for you. In Nagoski’s example of being chased by a lion, your body quickly determines which response gives you the best chance of surviving: fighting the lion, running away from the lion, or freezing and playing dead (like a possum). This intense, intricate process goes on in your body whenever you feel threatened, and yes, even a small stressor like a work deadline triggers this cycle. 

How can I complete the cycle?

When you’re feeling stressed and all of these survival hormones are dancing around in your body, you need to do something with this energy to complete the stress response cycle so it won’t negatively affect your health. Keeping all of this energy and hormone-induced survival-level alertness in your body is not good. Nagoski recommends completing the cycle by exercising, meditating, or doing a “primal scream.” The first time I did a primal scream, I was in my car so no one could hear me, and I burst into tears immediately after because I was so surprised by myself. It was a little too primal for me. I prefer exercise or meditation to complete my cycle. You can also do a leisurely activity you know will help you relax, such as reading or gardening, or even talking about your stressors with a friend or therapist.

So many people experience different stressors multiple times a day and never complete the cycle, which can have adverse effects on their reproductive, mental, and physical health. You likely have tell-tale signs your body throws out when you’re feeling too stressed, so pay attention to those signs and make sure you make time to complete the cycle. You’ll be more productive and healthier because of it.

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