What is anxiety? Anxiety is anticipation of what could happen in the future. This experience could look like avoidant behavior or even hyper vigilance in preparing for the impending event. On the other hand, fear is an emotional response to danger that is either perceived or imminent. Fear typically is experienced along with anxiety. Anxiety, fear, and stress related to upcoming events is a normal part of the human experience, yet sometimes we can find ourselves stuck in it for prolonged periods of time, and it does not have to be that way
I want to introduce a new thought to you. Could our experience of anxiety and stress be a cycle? Have you ever heard of a stress cycle? Meaning, if there is a cycle, that there can actually be a beginning and end point to stress? What groundbreaking knowledge! So what exactly is a stress cycle?
DIFFERENTIATING BETWEEN STRESS AND STRESSORS
Often we lump stressors in our life together with our experience of stress, when they are really different. Awareness of the difference can help to identify the beginning and end to a cycle. Stressors are external or internal stimuli (thoughts, perception of self, memories) that we interpret in our bodies as a threat. Stressors in our lives initiate the stress response in our bodies whereas stress is the somatic (body) and neurological (brain/mind) shift that happens when we interface with stressors.
THE STRESS RESPONSE
When your brain identifies a threat, there is a typical response that induces activity in the brain and hormones of the body that will give all of its best efforts towards the goal of survival. This stress response leads to hypoarousal (freeze) which leads to the shutting down of your body, or hyperarousal (fight or flight) which makes your body hyperattentive to engaging or fleeing from the perceived threat. In other words, the stress response requires the whole body in order to get through, evade, or defeat the threat.
THE HURDLE TO COMPLETING THE CYCLE
So if we deal with the stressor i.e.. the threat, we have dealt with the stress right? Not necessarily, and herein lies the problem! Just because the threat has dissolved, or disappeared, or has been persevered through, doesn’t mean that your body has experienced a sense of calm or safety yet. Your mind may know that you have come to a place of relief, yet your body may still be experiencing hyperarousal or hypoarousal. You find yourself stuck in the stress response/cycle. Your body is crying out for a signal that things are okay. Your body needs to be communicated to. Addressing the cause of your experience of stress is not the same thing as addressing your stress.
If we do not address our stress in our body, this sets the stage for chronic stress as we continue to engage with daily stressors and major life stressors. In essence, things could lead to burnout. But things could also get better.
HOW TO COMPLETE THE CYCLE
The most effective way to complete the cycle is through physical activity or joyful movement anywhere from 20-60 minutes. Almost every day a new stress cycle begins, and most days your stress cycle is able to complete while utilizing this skill of movement. If 20 minutes or prolonged movement is not available to you, deep breaths, standing up, and progressive muscle relaxation is helpful.
Other Ways To Complete the Cycle
- Positive social interaction
- Affection from loved ones or trusted people in your life (does not have to be physical but this is awesome too)
- Crying, which is going through your emotions rather than avoiding them
- Creative expression
RECEIVE PROFESSIONAL HELP FOR ANXIETY
If you are facing chronic stress or anxiety, we are here to help you. We would love to meet with you, hold space for you, and validate your story all while offering hope for change in your life. Please book a free consultation with us today and get connected with one of our empathetic and empowering therapists at Heartland Therapy Connection. Things can get better for you.
Resources For You
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.
Nagoski, A., & Nagoski, E. (2020). Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books.
Porges, S. W. (2022, May 10). Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2022.871227/full