May 10


How to Break the Stress Cycle

By Cassie

May 10, 2021

break the stress cycle, stress cycle

Stress is a natural reaction that has helped humans survive throughout history.  It signals dangers and risk both long and short term.  Experiencing stress when being chased by a dangerous animal or running short on food only a month into a long winter (you know… before grocery stores and restaurants) could be life threatening.  Physical changes were necessary for survival.  But what happens when these physical symptoms occur far too often and overstay their welcome?  They can create life threatening health conditions all on their own.  Having a plan to break the stress cycle can help you prevent and cope with stress in a healthy way to safeguard your health and wellness.

Stop it Before it Starts

The lower your baseline level of stress the better.  If you’re feeling overstimulated, overwhelmed, or anxious already it’s far more difficult to cope.  Imagine that you have an internal vessel to hold stress.  If it’s kept empty it’ll take a lot longer for it to overflow but if it’s almost full the slightest thing will put it over the top. 

Create intention about keeping your baseline lower by…

  • Addressing stress and other emotions when they come up rather than bottling them.
  • Eating well, getting plenty of rest, and hydrating
  • Exercising regularly
  • Minimizing stimuli
  • Setting healthy relationship boundaries and saying no.
  • Creating a budget and being financially mindful

Underlying stressors from a packed schedule, financial strain, or relationship conflict will fill your vessel quickly, as will lack of rest and emotional avoidance.  This will make it easier to slip into a stress cycle.  Triggers will become more prevalent, and you’ll be less tolerant and resilient in coping with them.  Often, it’s easier to prevent rather than break the stress cycle. 

Identify Triggers

Understanding what triggers your stress cycle can be very helpful.  Once you know what they are you can prepare for them or find ways to avoid them. 

Keeping a journal in which, you write down things that increase your stress level, how you feel, and what factors are present can be very helpful.  Sometimes things bother you only when they are combined with others, being aware of this can make a huge difference.

I’m not typically stressed out when my kids want to chat with me about their day but if the TV is on and I’m trying to make a new recipe at the same time it’s likely to make me pretty anxious.  In addition, adding one stressor on top of another is likely to magnify it.  Think about it… running late probably stresses you out and so does traffic.  Put them together and you’re likely to not just trigger stress by launch it into the stratosphere.

Knowing what your triggers are can help you avoid them or address them quickly which allows you to break the stress cycle early on.

Brain Dump

The next phase of the stress cycle is automatic thoughts.  Once you experience a trigger your brain is likely to go into overdrive trying to figure out how to keep you safe.  But if you’re anything like me these thoughts aren’t helpful at all.  An endless stream of what if’s, hypervigilance, regret, and self-punishment often follow a stress trigger.  Before you know it, it feels like you’re drowning in your own thoughts with little room to breathe.

Putting your thoughts on paper is extremely beneficial.  You may not be able to make them stop but at least you can get it out.  You can then take the time to organize your thoughts, make a realistic plan, and proactively address the challenges you may be facing.

I’m a super fan of the brain dump technique and include it in phase one of my bedtime routine.  I do it every night even if I haven’t experienced a trigger recently.  I find the habit helpful, and it enables me to fall asleep quickly.  Just grab a notebook and write down everything you’re thinking.  You can sort it all out in the morning with a clear head and after a good night’s sleep.

Experience Feelings

Bottled up emotions don’t go away; they just fester and make any situation more stressful.  I understand that some feelings can be pretty uncomfortable, especially those you may be experiencing during times of stress.  Allow yourself to experience your feelings.  If you need to cry it out grab a box of tissues and binge a few tear-jerkers, dealing with frustration or anger dance it out or try kickboxing.  And seriously, don’t hesitate to get professional help if you’re struggling emotionally. 

Not acknowledging and processing your feeling will prevent you from breaking the stress cycle.  Affirmations can help you feel safer and validated while experiencing uncomfortable feelings.  In addition, they increase resilience, an important ingredient to coping with stress.

Healthy Alternatives

 Maladaptive coping skills and unhealthy behaviors in the stress cycle lead directly to negative physical symptoms and jeopardize health and wellness.  Identifying healthy alternatives and creating reminders to use them is very helpful.  In addition, many of these healthy alternatives help prevent or break the stress cycle in other phases as well.

Try some of these ideas…

  • Move your body
  • Spend time outside
  • Start or enjoy a hobby
  • Eat fruit instead of sugar
  • Journal
  • Meditate
  • Practice self-care

Making healthy coping skills a habit will help you break the stress cycle before it has a long-term negative impact on your health and wellness.

Complete the Cycle

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If you find yourself stuck in a stress cycle and struggling to break out of it the best thing to do is complete the cycle.  When you start to feel the stress building and you’re struggling to shake it take action to create physiological balance.  You can do this by engaging in activities that create acute stress.  These activities cause your body to produce anti stress hormones.  Roller coasters, zip-lines, surfing, and even cold showers are all great ways to create acute stress.  Getting back in balance is an important way to break the stress cycle and prevent negative mental and physical symptoms.

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