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The Stress Response Cycle: 3 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress



This time of the year means we’re quickly approaching the upcoming holidays, colder weather, less sunlight, and shorter days, which all can significantly impact our stress level and mood. Psychologist and educator, Dr. Emily Nagoski defines stressors as “the things that activate the stress response—family, work, weather, etc., while stress is the system of changes activated in your brain and body in response to those stressors. It’s an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism that allows you to respond to perceived threats” (Nagoski, 2015, p. 112). While stress is an uncomfortable thing to experience in our bodies and minds, it is not a bad thing! In fact, stress is all about survival and keeping us safe. If you struggle with chronic stress or anxiety, remind yourself that your brain is NOT broken—it is doing the thing that it has evolved to do—to keep you alive (and it’s darn good at it). But what is happening internally when we experience stress?


Enter, the stress response cycle! The stress response cycle has a beginning, middle, and end. The cycle begins when we first detect a threat—when our brain processes ‘I’m at risk!’ Imagine that you’re a cave woman out collecting grasses or berries and suddenly you spot a Sabretooth tiger in the brush. The stress response cycle is activated when you perceive a threat—when you first see that tiger. Next, the middle of the cycle occurs when your body responds to the threat. Our bodies experience a massive biochemical shift including a dumping of cortisol and adrenaline and a shift in our physiological functioning, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of the pupils, and suppressed digestion—all in preparation for action and in a matter of seconds. The middle of the stress response cycle is about taking action. You might run away and hide in your cave or use your spear to fight off the tiger. In this phase, you are taking action to save your life! Finally, the end of the stress response cycle is survival—when your brain processes the message of ‘I am safe.’ Your heart rate returns to normal, and the other biological systems come back online. Nagoski (2015) explains that we complete the stress response cycle by adding in a new behavior that eradicates both the stressors and stress. Essentially, we must take action to feel different – your mood will follow action. In our modern world, we’re not too worried about facing a Sabretooth tiger. However, we experience chronic stress making it much more difficult to naturally complete the stress response cycle since we’re juggling multiple stressors and over a longer period of time Therefore, we must intentionally work to complete the stress response cycle by changing our behaviors.


1. “Physical activity is the most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state” (Nagoski, 2015, p. 120). Think back to our Sabretooth tiger example. When we were stressed or detected danger, what did we do? We moved! We ran or we fought back. So, find a supportive way to move your body in your modern life. Maybe that’s throwing on your favorite song and having a full out dance party in your kitchen or going on a walk in the woods to see the foliage. Maybe physical activity means trying out low impact yoga videos on YouTube or lifting weights. During this particularly stressful time of year, it’s extremely important to find meaningful ways to move your body to complete the stress response cycle.


2. Nagoski also suggests that we can complete the stress response cycle through creative self-expression! We live in a society whose chief concerns are productivity and capitalism. This mentality can seriously harm members within society who naturally buy into the idea that one’s worth is tied to productivity and capitalism. It also does not allow us to successfully complete the stress response cycle as productivity and capitalism is a never-ending battle! Creative self-expression is such an important aspect of life because it allows us to truly connect with ourselves and to enjoy the process rather than the outcome. There are so many different avenues of creative self-expression: drawing, painting, doodling, sculpting, knitting, woodworking, woodburning, crocheting, sewing, photography, music, dancing, and writing/journaling to name a few. What is something that you enjoy doing that helps you connect with yourself and allows you to be more present in life?


3. Physical Affection is another key behavior that can help us complete the stress response cycle. In fact, research suggests that a 20 second hug from a trusted person (or pet!) helps our bodies release feel-good hormones, like oxytocin, which can cause our heart rate to decrease and allows our bodies to feel safer overall. Our bodies love deep pressure because it relaxes the nervous system and signals calmness, peace, and safety throughout the body. This holiday season, ask a trusted loved one to give you a long deep hug to help recalibrate your body and well-being.


Stress is an inevitable part of our lives that is both necessary for our survival and an uncomfortable thing we endure! Help yourself this holiday season by taking the time to complete your stress response cycle and explore ways to better connect with yourself and to feel safer.


 

Citation: Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are. Simon & Schuster.

 

Blog post written by Olivia Houlihan, LPC of Green Door Therapy.

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