Hacking Your Stress Cycle: How to Make Chronic Stress Work for You

Hacking Your Stress Cycle: How to Make Chronic Stress Work for You

We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight” response - it is one of the founding principles of animal biology. Your stress response gets activated by anything that your brain perceives as a threat, and everyone deals with stress triggers on a day to day basis. Little things, like the person ahead of you in line taking their sweet time to count out exact change, can be enough to trigger a stress response.2 So, how do we navigate life in a world where stress triggers are abundant and not let the stress get the better of us? The answers are disarmingly simple and easy to integrate into everyday life. First, we must understand how stress works at a physiological level.

Once the stress response is initiated, your sympathetic nervous system gets activated. The sympathetic nervous system is like your body’s throttle, controlling how much fuel your systems are operating on. When it is activated in a stress response, a number of physiological events occur, like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone production. 1, 2, 7 All of the responses have already occurred “before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening.” 2 Simultaneously, your body's nonessential functions (like immune responses, digestion, and reproduction) are deprioritized.1, 3, 7

Your body is now poised to act out the fight or flight response. These responses happen bodily and are meant to be dealt with physically. Issues arise when the actions you need to take to deal with the thing that is causing your stress (your stressor) are distinct from the actions you need to take to deal with your stress itself (the physiological response). This disconnect results in chronically incomplete stress cycles.3 It is bodily action (like running or fighting) that triggers the completion of a stress response.3 When the stress cycle isn’t completed, your body continues to suppress your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system.2, 7

We’ve found conclusive evidence that chronic stress impacts almost every system of the body.7 Most of the potential health issues linked to chronic stress are due to the fact that the parasympathetic nervous system is never able to do its thing - your body never goes into “rest and digest” mode. This means that the processing of nutrients is subpar, the cleanup of dead or malfunctioning cells is deprioritized, healing processes are discontinued, memory and other cognitive functions are set aside, and the list goes on.7

So, let’s lay it out: your stressors are likely chronic (bills, traffic, family, paperwork, etc.). They are never going to disappear. To deal with the stressor “bills,” you likely write checks or go online to pay them. But your body reacts as if there is a threat to its survival and has initiated a stress cycle. No amount of logical thinking can override this response.2, 3 Sitting and typing on your computer is not going to send the message “threat neutralized, I am safe” to your body. But you know that if you don’t complete the stress cycle, your body will continue to go haywire trying to prepare you for “fight or flight.” So, what can you do to complete the stress cycle and reactivate “rest and digest” mode?

Luckily, we can turn to the ever encouraging and uplifting work of Emily and Amelia Nagoski and their book: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. In it, they hand us the ultimate key to completing stress cycles: “Remember, your body has no idea what ‘filing your taxes’... means. It knows, though, what jumping up and down means. Speak its language... and its language is body language” (p. 15). They also give us specific strategies that have been scientifically proven to be effective in completing stress cycles:

  1. Exercise - Run, dance, swim, just simply moving for twenty to sixty minutes a day is effective for most folks (p. 14). Even twenty jumping jacks or tensing your body and holding your breath for ten seconds can be enough for your body to get the message.1 ,2, 4
  2. Breathing - Deep, belly breathing does two things: it slows your heart rate and engages your belly muscles in a pattern of contracting and relaxing, sending the “I’m safe” message.4
  3. Positive Social Interaction - “Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place” (p. 16). Simply handing out a compliment is enough!1, 2, 4
  4. Deep, Belly Laughter - Neuroscientist Sophie Scott says in a Ted Talk: “when you laugh with people, that's actually letting you access a really ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds, and clearly to regulate emotions, to make ourselves feel better.” (16:10)5
  5. Affection - Long hugs, kisses, intimate conversation, hugging a beloved pet, any or all of the above can trigger the affection response. The important part is that you feel safe, steady, trusting, and ultimately can feel yourself start to relax (p.16-17).3, 4, 6
  6. Cry - Allowing yourself ten minutes to let loose and let it all out can be a fantastic way to reset. If you need a little coaxing, try watching an emotional movie. “Going through that emotion with the characters allows your body to go through it, too” (p. 17).4

  7. Creative Expression - Art is a culturally approved medium through which to feel all the feels.

Take advantage! Sing loudly in the shower, paint your feelings, dance, cook, whatever calls to you. Give yourself an avenue to express big feelings (p. 17).4

Sources

  1. American Psychological Association. (2018, November 1). Stress effects on the body. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body

  2. Harvard Medical School. (2020, July 6). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

  3. Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life (1st ed.). Simon & Schuster.

  4. Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.

  5. Scott, S. (2015, March). Transcript of "Why we laugh". TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. https://www.ted.com/talks/sophie_scott_why_we_laugh/transcript?language=en

  6. TED. (2021, June 11). “Feeling emotionally exhausted? 6 things you can do to release your stress.” Ideas.ted.com. https://ideas.ted.com/emotionally-exhausted-burnout-completing-stress-response-cycle/

  7. Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 10571072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480