Essay

The Cycles of Stress

A search on the word “stress” in Google yields an immediate 647 million hits. The subject of stress—the effects of stress, how to combat or manage stress—is a massive pre-occupation and for millions a serious health and reduced quality of life reality.

Headlines and statistics bombard us. And typically stress is portrayed as beginning outside of us, caused by external factors with an element of the inevitable given the way we live now. Life itself is stressful.

In reality, our experience of “stress” is actually internal; it’s our own biochemical response to any given situation. What triggers a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, fight or flight, in you, may not have the same effect on me, and vice versa. For example, the simple experience of standing close to a wall of glass 60 floors up in a skyscraper, looking at a gorgeous view, is for most people captivating. Yet for some it is terrifying. Certainly the levels of release of those “stress” chemicals will be different for almost everyone.

Let’s expand our scope of the life events that can trigger a stress response. We all recognise the spectrum of stress responses in being late for an important event, missing our travel connection, finding out we didn’t get the job, the relationship is ending, a loved one is sick. To these we add situations of excitement and flooded emotion from the other end of the spectrum—falling in love, a longed-for vacation, a surprise party, the thrill of a fast car.

Another very modern contributor to our experience of stress is overstimulation. In contemporary life there’s more of everything, everywhere, and our brains are meant to normalise and choose among the ever constant, higher volume of things competing for our attention. The levels of stimulation that we process on a daily basis exceed what our ancestors may have experienced in a decade, or even a lifetime. Our use of online tools and social media adds a double challenge. The sensory stimulation of screen time plus the potential for stress response to the content we are constantly checking is biologically overwhelming. These effects all create a heavy demand on our nervous systems.

 


 

Simply put, anything that places a demand on us, or represents a change in expectations—irrespective of a positive or negative label—has the potential to trigger a stress response.

 


 

Stress occurs within us in cycles. There are two different cycles of stress: the vicious cycle that continually winds up the effects of stress in our physiology; and, the virtuous cycle that systematically unwinds the effects of stress from our physiology.

Almost everyone is familiar with the vicious cycle of stress. A change in expectations, a new demand, triggers a stress response. This new biochemical response layers on top of the one I experienced a short while ago and now I’m feeling even more “stressed”. My capacity to stay calm or steady and meet the demand is diminishing and low. I had a poor night’s sleep, I’m feeling anxious about something that could be happening later, and now I need to cope with this new thing.

The more stressed I feel, the more stressed I become. My behaviours reflect my state and affect how I interact with and perceive the world around me, contributing all the while to a more stressful and often negative experience of life. My physiology is in a constant state of fight or flight. To the extent I may not even notice, that constant feeling of being “on” or “wired” is now normal and hyper vigilant.

This experience is very, very, very common.

There is, however, a circuit breaker, an antidote to this cycle, these deleterious effects. It is rest.

Our human physiology is designed to experience demands and thrive, but for this we require rest, every day.

Our biology naturally unwinds the effects of stress when we rest. It used to be that we could balance the books each night. The demands of the day unwound with a night’s sleep. For almost everyone, those days are gone and they are not coming back.

And for many, the sleep we do get is not particularly restful. Compounding the problem, the knowledge that we are getting less quantity and quality of sleep than the scientists tells us we need is, well, stressful.

The good news is that sleep is only one means of resting. Learning what it is to rest and how to experience the benefits of rest by doing different things is central to the other cycle of stress, the virtuous cycle. Some of these different things are simple reorientations to our daily experience of life, including screen time, positive routine, and mindset. Other things become new daily practices that help us rest profoundly, like meditation.

The virtuous cycle of stress is set up when, through resting deeply, we systematically unwind the effects of the stress response from our physiology. As we unwind and remove the effects of stress from our systems, we create a foundation for better health and behaviours. And as we continue, physical fatigue and nervous exhaustion reduce and we build up a different, valuable resource, called adaptation energy.

In the virtuous cycle of stress, we begin to feel calmer—at first, just a little, but enough. We experience a more stable response and faster recovery from those changing expectations and new demands. This is adaptation energy: our expanding capacities to flex, respond not react, and adapt. With these new capacities we trigger a lesser stress response, less adrenaline and cortisol, into our physiology.

Day by day, we strengthen and deepen. It isn’t that we no longer experience a stress response; we are still human and active in the world. But our experience is sufficiently different, and demonstrably improving, that we are encouraged and motivated to continue the daily practices to unwind stress.

This is the virtuous cycle of stress. And in this experience of life, we begin to thrive in the awareness that happiness is not the absence of demands; it is the ability to meet them with stability and grace.

 


Melanie Kirkbride is co-founder of The Soft Road.  She frequently writes and speaks on topics of personal and cultural transformation to help people thrive in creative action.  To contact Melanie or to receive her Notes and Soft Road Essays, please click here.