Why You Need to Learn How to Complete the 'Stress Cycle'

Claudia Canavan
·5-min read
Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir

From Women's Health

It's difficult to overstate how normal it is to be feeling thoroughly spooked right now. Between the ever-upwards arc of infections, the onset of lockdown 2.0 and mutterings of restrictions perhaps having to be in place past early December, few short of the enlightened can be at peace, right now.

But this International Stress Awareness Week – which, yes, comes at at optimum time – it's time to talk about coping strategies that are accessible, free and truly have the power to help you to work through this moment.

Here's one thing that might bring you something useful. In a their book Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle (RRP £16.99), identical twins Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski – who have a PhD in Health Behaviour and a Doctorate in Musical Arts between them – argue that we lead lives humming with stress, but we never complete the 'stress cycle.' Cracking this, they say, is the key to unlocking ourselves from our hyped up cages and into greater mental clarity.

So, what's a stress cycle? It's the moment at which our bodies learn that, after facing danger, we are now safe: the completion of the full circle of stress.

Let's illustrate this by taking it back to the old school. When our ancestors swerved some threat, say, being chased by a tiger, they might have achieved their survival by running away to their village. Here, the resident muscle maybe threw a few spears at the animal and slays it. Everyone jumps, cheers and celebrates. Woo! In this moment, for the runner away-er, the stress cycle is tied up.

Take a modern equivalent. You receive a 'breaking news' notification on your phone on Friday evening. It's been leaked to the press that Downing Street is set to announce a month-long lockdown in England. Your cortisol and adrenaline spike. Your body enters fight or flight. It chooses flight, and commands that you bolt to safety somewhere far away, where terrifying changes can't get you. Apart from, of course, you don't. You scroll your phone for whatever information you can find, panic eat half a pack of biscuits and try and distract yourself with Netflix.

The problem? You've not completed the stress cycle. As the Nagoskis note, when this happens on the daily, your stress response is in chronic activation.

This is not good. It means lit up blood pressure (AKA an increased chance of heart disease) as well as digestion that's been played with (the stress response slows your gut function down, so that you can put all of your energy into running or fighting).

Topline: completing the stress cycle – and thus taking yourself out of the stress response – is a serious imperative for your health.

Here, extracted from their book, is the sisters' suggestions of finishing the cycles off. As most of us experience a stressor at least once a day, they prescribe that you commit to doing at least one of these, ideally more, every 24 hours, too.

How to de-stress: 7 ways to complete the stress cycle

1.Move

Running, dancing, swimming, whatever: the Nagoskis note that exercise is 'your first line of attack in the battle against burnout.' Aim for 20 to 60 minutes a day.

2. Breathe

'Deep, slow breaths down-regulate the stress response—especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts,' write the Nagoskis.

'A simple, practical exercise is to breathe in to a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times—just one minute and fifteen seconds of breathing— and see how you feel.'

3. Talk to people

'Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place,' say the Nagoskis.

'Just go buy a cup of coffee and say 'nice day' to the barista. Compliment [your colleagues] earrings [via Zoom.] Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck.'

4. Laugh

'Laughing together—and even just reminiscing about the times we’ve laughed together—increases relationship satisfaction. We don’t mean social or 'posed' laughter, we mean belly laughs—deep, impolite, helpless laughter.

'When we laugh, says neuroscientist Sophie Scott, we use an 'ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.'

Photo credit: Issy Muir
Photo credit: Issy Muir

5. Speak to loved ones

'When friendly chitchat with colleagues doesn’t cut it, when you’re too stressed out for laughter, deeper connection with a loving presence is called for. Most often, this comes from some loving and beloved person who likes, respects, and trusts you, whom you like, respect, and trust,' say the Nagoskis.

'It doesn’t have to be physical affection, though physical affection is great; a warm hug, in a safe and trusting context, can do as much to help your body feel like it has escaped a threat as jogging a couple of miles, and it’s a heck of a lot less sweaty.

'One example of affection is the 'six-second kiss' advice from relationship researcher John Gottman. Every day, he suggests, kiss your partner for six seconds.

That’s one six-second kiss, mind you, not six one-second kisses... six seconds is too long to kiss someone you resent or dislike, and it’s far too long to kiss someone with whom you feel unsafe.'

6. Cry

'Anyone who says 'crying doesn’t solve anything' doesn’t know the difference between dealing with the stress and dealing with the situation that causes the stress,' the sisters write.

'Have you had the experience of just barely making it inside before you slam the door behind you and burst into tears for ten minutes?

Then you wipe your nose, sigh a big sigh, and feel relieved from the weight of whatever made you cry? You may not have changed the situation that caused the stress, but you completed the cycle.'

7. Do something creative

'Engaging in creative activities today leads to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm tomorrow.

'Why? How? Like sports, the arts—including painting, sculpture, music, theatre, and storytelling in all forms—create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.'

Time to get those watercolours out?

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