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Wellness & Beyond

7 Strategies to Complete the Stress Cycle

May 20, 2022

By Lawyer Assistance Program Staff

Early humans were stressed out just like we are. Our hunter-gatherer prehistoric ancestors had to run from saber-toothed tigers and battle neighboring tribes with clubs and spears. Folks were in a life-and-death struggle on an almost daily basis.

Stress ballDuring those times, people with robust bodily stress responses survived to sharpen another spear and pass on their genes. Fast forward to today’s world and we are still benefiting, and suffering, from the same bodily stress responses. Everywhere we look right now there are “tigers” chasing us — stressors our bodies interpret as dangerous threats — from relationships and work deadlines to the pandemic and systems of oppression.

When we encounter today’s tigers, our brains (the amygdala, specifically) and our sympathetic nervous systems activate our bodies’ fight-or-flight response in order to prepare them to respond to the danger. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels spike, enabling us to fight or run and ultimately to survive. However, we are not built to stay in this state. If we get stuck in a chronic or prolonged stress response instead of completing the stress cycle, it depletes our physical, psychological, and emotional resources.

In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explore seven evidence-based strategies to complete the stress response cycle:

  1. Physical activity is the most efficient and effective means of completing the stress cycle. Aim to move your body 20 to 60 minutes a day. This can be anything that gets your body going — running, dancing, yoga, biking, gardening. If you are short on time, turn on some music and dance it out for the length of one song. Do a quick set of jumping jacks.
  2. Breathing deeply and slowly — exhaling longer than you inhale — reminds your body that it is not under attack. An easy method for deep breathing is box breathing, also known as 4x4 or square breathing. Inhale through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale out of your mouth for four, and hold your breath again for four. Repeat for two minutes.
  3. Positive social interactions, even superficial ones, reassure your brain that the world is a safe place.
  4. Laughter, particularly with someone else, helps reinforce social connection and regulate emotions. The Nagoskis note that deep belly laughter is a way to release and express the emotions we are keeping inside.
  5. Affection, whether physical or emotional, is another great tool to complete the stress cycle.
  6. Crying is one of our body’s methods for releasing stress and completing the stress cycle. Try playing some music, watching a TV show or movie, reading an article or book — anything that might trigger a good, therapeutic cry.
  7. Creative expression, according to Nagoskis, “create[s] a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.” It is a space where emotions can be processed and explored.

If you want help managing your stress, the D.C. Bar LAP (a free and confidential resource) is here for you. Reach us at [email protected].