What Does it Mean to "Complete the Stress Cycle" and Why is it So Important?
Picture this: it's a few thousands of years ago, you are one of the first generation of humans on the planet, living your best life in the jungle, picking berries, having a great ol' time. Suddenly, a tiger's chasing you.
A) mentally call the tiger all kinds of nasty names all the while smiling at it passive-aggressively
B) ignore it and throw on a Netflix show (or, you know, the thousands-of-years-ago equivalent)
C) run as fast as you can
We can probably agree to say that the only way that you'll avoid being the tiger's dinner is by running, right?
So you run. And run. And run.
After a little while, you turn around and notice that the tiger's gone.
The threat has passed. You can breathe again. Phew...
You go back to your tribe, tell them all about it, give your favorite other human a big hug and go to bed.
You have now completed the stress cycle.
The threat appeared.
You freaked out.
You did something about it.
You went back to relaxing.
Now here's the thing: although our sources of stress have changed dramatically since the jungle days, our brain... not so much. In fact, our brain still interprets ANY source of stress as physical danger (basically, a tiger chasing you).
When you're stuck in a meeting with a bunch of annoying colleagues trying to dump their work onto you...
When your boss calls you late at night or on the weekends...
When you have a deadline approaching dangerously fast...
Your brain thinks: DANGER!
Yet, how do most of deal with it? ... we don't.
We sit in that meeting and do our best to smile and stay polite.
We come home and zone out in front of Netflix.
We internalise our stress.
The issue with that, is that your brain has no way of knowing that the threat has passed, and that you are now safe. This is how we get stuck in a state of chronic, constant stress -and completing the stress cycle is what helps us to avoid that.
Completing the Stress Cycle is what Helps Us to not Get Stuck in a State of Chronic Stress.
So how do we do it?
I've already hinted at 2 of the most effective ways of completing the cycle:
1) Physical Exercise. When you exercise as a way to release stress, your brain interprets that as "we have run away from danger. We are now back to safety" - except that it doesn't actually have to be running! Anything that gets you breathing heavier and your heart beating faster will do the trick: a Zumba class, an intense yoga class, jumping up and down, ...
2) Affection with a Loved One. Similar to physical exercise, hugging a loved one sends the message to your brain that "we are back home to safety - the threat has passed". Physical contact with a loved one also releases Oxytocin (the love hormone!) which, in turn, reduces Cortisol: the stress hormone.
Now, here's a final key element:
Because most of us experience some kind of stress every day, it is crucial that we plan for a moment to complete the stress cycle at the end of the day!
Whether it's hugging your partner, having a living-room dance party with your kids, or cuddling your pet, do something every day to make sure that your brain understands: "I am safe".