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The Stress Cycle: What It Is & Why It’s Important

Our bodies and our world function within many different cycles: the lunar cycle, the carbon cycle… even our body systems are small, self-contained cycles. We often forget about, or ignore, another important process in our bodies: the stress cycle.

The stress cycle has existed for humans and animals since the beginning of time. A simple illustration of a completed stress cycle would be the classic predator prey situation. You are hunter-gatherer in the fields and suddenly you’re being preyed on by a lion. Your adrenaline spikes, cortisol is flowing through your veins, and you likely run. You run, you escape, you hide, but then what? How do you recover from this terrifying moment? Your stress cycle is still incomplete.

A modern equivalent might be a stressor in your work life. You get called into a meeting with your boss and the hours leading up to the meeting are agonizing. You’re anxious, you’re sweaty, you can’t eat, you have thoughts running through your mind… and you meet with your boss and it turns out everything is okay. But then what? Unless you help to process some of the stress you’ve just experienced, it gets tied up inside. While this example is much less “life or death” compared to situations our ancestors experienced, our adrenaline and cortisol still flows in the same way.

If you’re thinking back to years and years of stressors- big or small, and wondering, “did I complete my stress cycle each time?” the answer is probably no! Incomplete stress cycles can lead to all sorts of issues in our bodies- fatigue, digestive issues, pain, etc.

How Do I Complete My Stress Cycle?

The very brilliant Nagoski sisters, Emily and Amelia, have researched and learned about the best ways to manage stress and complete the stress cycle. Some are simple and obvious, but they all have deeply important roles in our lives.

  • Movement- any kind of joyful movement in your body will help to release different neurochemicals to “flush” out adrenaline and cortisol. We aren’t talking a 60 minute HIIT, but something as simple as a walk, a dance party, or a deep stretch.

  • Slow and Controlled Breathing- breathing in a meaningful way is not only grounding but physically calms our nervous systems.

  • Social Interactions- connecting with others, even in superficial ways, reminds us that we are safe and in community. Something as simple as a smile and “thanks for your help” at the grocery store will calm us down.

  • Laughter- the loud and ugly kind! Research shows a deep connection to ancient biological functions for laughter.

  • Crying-Crying is the ultimate stress cycle release. Crying releases hormones and helps to physically calm our nervous system. Crying may not change anything, but it will complete the cycle!

If you’d like to learn more about the stress cycle, you can check out the Nagoski sisters’ book, Burnout. If you need help managing your stress or figuring why you’re getting stuck in incomplete stress cycles, please reach out to us here at Georgetown Counseling & Wellness. We provide counseling services to reduce stress. We’d be happy to chat with you about your needs and match you with the right mental health clinician.


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