Stress has been so normalized as a part of our culture yet it’s one of the leading causes of lifestyle diseases and mental health illnesses. It’s not uncommon to have people work almost all 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without taking breaks. I understand that with the way the economy is set up today, people need to clock in for more hours just to make ends meet even though the stress from that is driving people to their early graves.

Stress is your body’s normal response to positive or negative life situations like starting a new job, losing a loved one, heartbreak, missing a deadline, etc. We all experience stress from time to time – we’re wired to. However, when that stress becomes too much for our bodies to handle, we could shut down or burn out.

When you are stressed, you experience reactions called the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Please note that we all respond to stress in either one of these:

  • Fight: You want to attack, start an argument, get into a physical altercation, competitiveness, hoarding, blaming others, and hurling insults. Your primary emotion is anger.
  • Flight: You are reluctant to face the issue, you flee or hide from the scene, you avoid conflict or confrontation. Your primary emotion is denial.
  • Freeze: You numb your emotions, likelihood of substance abuse, eating disorders, and you look for unproductive distractions like heavy social media use. Your primary emotion is shutting down.

Most of us don’t complete what is called the stress response cycle which refers to the stages through which stress goes through before it dissipates. It starts and ends somewhere but we hardly get to the end of it so our bodies remain in that fight, flight, or freeze state. A repeated exposure to stress, hyper-arouses the sympathetic nervous system whose job in our bodies is to prepare us to fight stress, and emergencies. If we move from one stressor to the next without healthy coping mechanisms, our bodies will continually release stress hormones and go into shutdown because of stress overload.

The stress response cycle looks like:

  • Stage 1: You sense danger – an external stressor or a triggering event. Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic and you’re running late for your first day at work.
  • Stage 2: Your body starts to respond to the stressor. Heart beat racing, body aches, sweaty palms and armpits, difficulty breathing, upset stomach and a million emotions racing. Your fight, flight, or freeze responses are activated. At this point, you’re probably cursing out other motorists in traffic and constantly checking your phone in hope that your new employer doesn’t call. You’re also probably feeling angry or disappointed with yourself…. I should have woken up earlier” “They’ll fire me even before I begin” “I’m such a loser”
  • Stage 3: You survive the stressful situation and go back to normal. In this case, you get to your new workplace and you’re given a warning to not come in late again so you calm down and even forget about it. This stage should also include a healthy coping mechanism for the stress you just experienced but as I said earlier, most of us don’t respond to our stress – we just move on to the next one. The cycle starts all over again and it becomes vicious in the sense that our bodies are always reacting to stress but never really completing the stress response cycle through a coping method.

This vicious cycle of stress can plunge us into unhealthy coping mechanisms because of the overload. You just want to release the tension as fast as you can or in ways that bring you more pleasure than pain which is an unsustainable way to deal with stress because it only starts more bad cycles like addiction.

Identify the following unhealthy coping mechanisms:

  • Emotional eating
  • Substance abuse; smoking, drinking, drugs.
  • Self-medicating
  • Spending too much time on social media with no limits or aims
  • Socially withdrawing
  • Taking your stress out on other people like yelling or angry outbursts
  • Self-harm like cutting oneself
  • Reckless behavior like drunk driving

Here’s how you should complete the stress response cycle with healthy coping methods;

  • Move your body by any means possible. Release the tension by running, taking a walk, take the stairs instead of the elevator, dancing, or shaking yourself. Put your body into motion.
  • Self-soothe using your five senses. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.
  • Seek comfort outside yourself. You may need to vent, talk it out, get a hug, or be positively affirmed by someone you love and trust. This triggers our happiness hormones.
  • Get enough sleep. Go to bed early and get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Also, keep your phone away from your bed to minimize sleep distractions.
  • Practice deep breathing exercises intentionally and slowly to release the tension. The easiest one is to take a deep breath and count to four, slowly exhale and release the breath while also counting to four – repeat the cycle until you are calm.
  • Have a creative release to bring you joy, energy, and enthusiasm like writing/journaling, coloring, drawing, playing an instrument, painting, and storytelling.
  • Simply cry about it. Crying is an outlet to release our big and heavy emotions. Let it all out and don’t hold back. It’s not a weakness to cry; it’s a sign of you completing the stress response cycle which is good for your nervous system.

You’ll know when the cycle is complete when you start feeling better – you’ll experience a shift in emotions (no matter how small) and a boost to your wellbeing. Always remember that every stressful situation requires you to process it properly and get to the end of the cycle before you experience another one. Sometimes the stressful situation might feel like too much for you to handle in the moment like grieving a loved one which should prompt you to seek professional help. Please feel free to reach out to us if you feel burdened with stress – we’re here to help.