The stress cycle is a term used to describe the different phases the body goes through in response to a stress trigger. By learning how to complete the stress cycle, psychologists believe that we can learn how to manage the damaging effects of stress better.
How is stress defined?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines stress as a “state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” We all experience stress from time to time, and in some situations it may even be useful to give us the motivation to make a change. However, chronic stress can be draining and even debilitating.
The term stress is often used interchangeably with anxiety, but stress is a physical and mental response to a trigger, whereas anxiety is a persistent state of worry that doesn’t go away even when there are no specific stressors present.
What is the stress cycle?
The stress cycle describes the physical responses triggered in the body and brain when a stressor is present. The first stage is alarm, when the brain triggers the sympathetic nervous system and our bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This can cause the breath to quicken and the heart to beat more rapidly.
This stage is often called the ‘fight or flight’ mode, when the body readies itself to deal with a potentially dangerous situation. The next stage is resistance, when the threat has passed. This is when the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered to reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body.
However, this stage of the cycle is not always completed. It evolved when our ancient ancestors needed the burst of energy to escape from a predator and reach a place of safety, but modern stressors do not usually involve hiding from a hungry tiger. They are more likely to be triggered by financial or relationship problems, for example.
When we receive some worrying news, such as an eye watering hike in our mortgage repayments, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered. However, our reaction is most likely to be a sedentary one, such as scrolling through a screen or comfort eating. This leaves the stress cycle uncompleted.
When we do not take ourselves out of the response stage of the stress cycle and enter the resistance and relief phase, the body can enter a chronic state of stress with permanently elevated levels of cortisol. This can lead to irritability, poor concentration, and ultimately we become physically and emotionally exhausted.
To avoid this state of burnout, we can develop some coping mechanisms. Everyone is different, and there is no one-size-fits all approach that will work for everybody. However there is no great mystery to the process, and even some quick and simple techniques such as taking some slow deep breaths can work very well.
Exercise or friendly social interaction are also good methods of breaking the cycle of tension and restoring our sense of wellbeing. Some people like to incorporate meditation or mindfulness exercises into their daily routine to help them complete the stress cycle.
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