Where you are in the stress cycle, and why it matters

By Terra Sky Friedman, CSU Marriage and Family Therapist Intern

Stress is common in our lives, caused by a variety of obstacles like finals week, tax season, nights up with a baby, a presentation at work, or a global pandemic. Though stress may be inevitable, you can decrease your stress and minimize the negative effects that prolonged stress can have on your body and mind.

Stress is the collection of physiological responses your brain and body initiate in response to a stressor. There are three main stress responses, or ways your body reacts to stressors: fight, flight, and freeze. These responses are designed to keep you alive in times of danger – think early humans chased by a wild animal. In a split second, your brain and body assess the threat. Can you fight this stressor? Can you outrun this stressor? Can you get away from this stressor by playing dead?

Person squeezing yellow smiley face stress ball with words "where are you in the stress cycle and why it matters" overlaying the image along with the College of Health and Human Sciences logo.

Consider a modern example of someone cutting you off in traffic. You could fight by getting out of your car and begin yelling, flee by swerving away and speeding off, or freeze by stomping on the breaks.

Clearing it up: stress vs. stressor

A common misconception is that we must fix or eliminate the thing stressing us out to manage the stress it is causing. Sometimes, it is possible to eliminate a stressor, such as choosing not to attend a stressful event. Other times, however, it is impossible to eliminate a stressor immediately such as with structural or chronic (ongoing) stressors – poverty, racism, and global events like climate change or a pandemic.

It turns out, stress and stressors are two different things. Stress refers to the feelings (emotional and physical) you experience in response to something stressful, while a stressor is the thing that brings about stress. Since stress and stressors are separable, they can be addressed separately. You can decrease your stress when you can’t eliminate the stressor. On the other hand, you can eliminate the stressor (by finishing your final or completing an interview for that new job), but still have elevated stress. This could leave you stuck in the stress cycle, which can take a serious toll on mental and physical health.

Stress has a cycle?

Emotions are cyclical, meaning they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stress can have negative impacts on immune functioning, heart health, and more when we get stuck in the middle part of the stress cycle (fight, flight, or freeze) without completing it.

How to complete the stress cycle

Now, we know how important it is to complete the cycle, but how do we do that? Below are five evidence-based approaches to lowering your stress by communicating to your body that you are safe now. These can be combined and utilized multiple times in one day, depending on level of stress and frequency of stressors – think after each final, meeting, or patient. You can choose ones that feel accessible to you or consider experimenting with some you have never tried before. You can make these your own.

  1. Do a physical activity: run, bike, swim, dance, do jumping jacks, or practice progressive muscle relaxation, which is structured tensing and releasing of muscles that can be done standing, seated, or lying down.
  2. Focus on your breathing: practice diaphragmatic or boxed breathing by releasing stomach muscles on the inhale, filling your belly and chest, then exhaling slowly and completely to empty out the air.
  3. Laugh: belly laughter, the kind you can’t fake, is the best laughter. Consider watching funny videos or remembering times you laughed particularly hard. Bonus if you can laugh with someone else.
  4. Social connection and affection: This can be casual like chatting with someone in line at the grocery store, or it can be more intimate like physical connection with friends or partners. Research indicates a 20 second hug with someone you trust can significantly decrease physiological stress.
  5. Creativity: this could mean singing, writing, painting, sculpting, playing an instrument, or anything that gets the creative juices flowing and allows space to feel emotions.

There are a few things you can do to know when you’ve completed the stress cycle. One of the best tactics is to scale your feelings of stress before and after doing one or more of the items on the list. One can equal no stress and 10 can equal the most stress you can imagine. By looking at these numbers, you’ll know if you have decreased your level of stress. Another tactic is to notice any changes in your mood, paying attention to cues from your body such as a sigh or an increased feeling of wellbeing. Once you notice that feeling of relaxation, you’ll know your stress cycle is completed.

If you would like additional support navigating the realities of this time, the CSU Center for Family and Couple Therapy has registered counselors available to meet with you now. The CFCT is currently providing all Colorado residents low-cost individual, couple, and family online video sessions during daytime and evening hours to fit your schedule. To schedule an appointment, please call (970) 491-5991 or email cfct@colostate.edu.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.