'Stress Response Series' Part 2: four key points about the stress response cycle

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26 Apr 2023

In their wonderfully accessible book, 'Burnout: solve your stress cycle', sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski take us on a delightful romp through all things related to stress, burnout and 'solving your stress cycle' - quite a feat given the subject matter! The key messages this book are really helpful in understanding how we can best support ourselves, manage stress and work through the emotional exhaustion that is so huge for many right now. So what are the four key factors in managing our stress response?

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The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will, unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski

The recent blog, 'How do we respond to stress?', highlighted the impacts of the accumulation of stress in our bodies. Let's unpack this some more to find ways that we can support ourselves towards better health.

1. There is a difference between the stressor and the stress

As described in this previous blog, stress involves a threat, real or perceived, to our physiological or psychological wellbeing.

A stressor is the event that causes this stress.

For example:

  • In a car accident, the accident itself is the stressor; whilst the physiological and psychological response to the accident is the stress.
  • When a relationship breaks down, there may be many stressors (emotional pain of the break up, the stress of finding somewhere to live, financial stress etc); the stress is the physicological and emotional impact.

A stressor can be a one-off incident (as in the car accident) or can accumulate over time (as in the relationship break down).

Some examples of stressors that can accumulate over time are:

  • Mental / emotional stressors (constant bombardment of information; being too busy; being around angry or highly anxious people; watching the news; deterioration of a relationship).
  • Cultural / political stressors (racism; gender bias; white body supremacy)
  • Physical stressors (nutritional deficiencies; eating food that creates stress on the body; overexercising; not exercising enough).
  • Chemical stressors (environmental toxins; air pollution; heavy metals; use of stimulants; certain medications; things that reduce stomach acid; allergens; or food sensitivities).

2. Emotions have a beginning, a middle and an end.

"Emotions are allostatic processes that transform the relationship between the environment and the desired bodily states into behaviour supporting homeostasis and well-being" (Nummenmaa, 2022).

What does this mean?

  • Emotions are a living, felt, neurobiological experience.
  • Emotions impact the body.
  • Emotions drive our behaviours.

We can often be scared of challenging emotions. Certainly in Western society many of us have been socialised to turn away from difficult feelings.

However, we know (see research regarding the body maps below) that we need to allow our emotions and stress states need to be felt and expressed in support, in order for them to be transformed.

Nummenmaa, 2022

3. Just because the stressor is gone, does not mean the stress is.

We have all had an experience of working hard to meet a deadline, dreaming of the triumphant moment of completion, only to find ourselves immediately collapsed in a heap, incredibly unwell.

Our stress response is designed to protect us from immediate danger. In this modern, Western society we are often in prolonged states of chronic stress for days, months or even years.

The impacts of stress accumulate throughout our bodies in an intricate cascade that effect our hormonal health, digestion, mental health, and immune, cardiocasvascular and musculoskeletal systems.

How can we reduce these impacts? See point 4.

4. You need to complete the stress response cycle.

The work of Peter Levine has shown us how mammals naturally complete the stress response cycle.

You can see in the video below, an impala going through different nervous system responses as it faces immanent death from a leopard:

  • immobilisation response (plays dead) as the predator holds its neck in its jaw
  • shaking and releasing the stress as the predator turns away
  • flight response (runs away to to safety)

Impala completes the stress response cycle

How can we complete our own stress cycle?

We need to find our own ways to release stress.

See below and consider which approaches you already use and which you might like to try:

7 ways to complete the stress response cycle • 'Burnout' by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Which of these do you already use?

Which might you like to try this week? Feel free to let me know your ideas here.

Emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski

Related Resources

Header image: Ahmad Odeh