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Five Ways to Complete the Stress Cycle and Avoid Burnout

Modern life, with its fast-paced demands and constant connectivity can lock you in a perpetual fight-or-flight stress cycle.

Five Ways to Complete the Stress Cycle and Avoid Burnout

This constant stress response can take a serious toll on your health as it does not allow for the necessary periods of rest and recovery. Continuous exposure to stress and the release of stress hormones can weaken your immune system, and increase the risk of numerous health issues such as heart disease, depression, and obesity. You can improve your mental and physical health by breaking free from this cycle.

Three Phases of the Stress Cycle


There are three phases to the stress cycle. The alarm phase acts as your body's immediate reaction to a perceived threat. The second phase is known as the resistance phase, as your body attempts to return to a state of balance by resisting or adapting to the stressors. The final phase is the exhaustion phase. Decreased immunity, fatigue, and a higher susceptibility to illness are associated with this phase, as the wave of stress hormones and cortisol take their toll. Without proper intervention, this stage can result in significant and chronic health issues.

Triggering the Stress Cycle: Alarm Phase

The stress cycle commences with the alarm phase, where your eyes, ears or both send information to the amygdala, an area of your brain that contributes to emotional processing. This hormonal surge results in increased heart rate, blood pressure, and energy supplies, gearing your body up to either confront or flee from the threat. This phase is characterized not only by a heightened state of awareness but also by a significant boost in physical capabilities. Your liver releases additional glucose into the bloodstream to provide extra energy, while certain bodily functions that are non-essential in immediate danger, such as digestion and immune system activities, are temporarily suppressed. Your body is now focusing all of its resources on addressing the immediate threat. The heavy lifting here is being done by the HPA-Axis, which consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. As your brain perceives dangers, it releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) prompts your body to release cortisol. These levels fall when the perceived threat has abated, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and beginning the resistance phase. Your body's stress response is meant to be short-lived, and when prolonged, it can contribute to a range of chronic health issues linked to inflammation and stress. These


include cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes, anxiety disorders and mental illness. The transition from the alarm to the resistance phase in the fight or flight response is your body's attempt to adapt to stress and restore equilibrium. Unfortunately, the stress cycle can be triggered by events that are not life threatening.

The Hazard of Getting Stuck in a Prolonged Resistance Phase

During the resistance phase, your body lowers stress hormone levels slightly, though they remain high enough to keep the body on alert. This shift allows you to deal with stress more effectively, maintaining a state of readiness without the intense energy expenditure of the alarm phase. This adaptation process is critical for prolonged periods of stress, ensuring that your body can continue functioning under pressure. Having recovered from the initial shock, with lowered cortisol levels, your blood pressure and heart rate begin to normalize. However, staying in the resistance phase for too long without adequate rest can lead to exhaustion. Even during the resistance phase, your body is ramping down its response but still remains on alert. The resistance phase may not have the acute intensity of the alarm stage but your body is still dealing with a cascade of heightened hormonal and physiological responses.

Escaping the Stress Cycle

Constant stress and an inability to exit the heightened resistance phase can lead to depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and heart disease. Stress is a known risk factor for drug addiction, relapse, and other maladaptive stress responses. But a certain level of stress is unavoidable in life. If you find yourself struggling with acute or prolonged stress, there are a number of healthy and proactive behaviors that can help you escape the stress cycle.


Clean Carbs and the Cortisol Glucose Link

One of the primary “stress” hormones is, of course, cortisol, and diet has a lot to do with chronically elevated cortisol levels. If you don't have enough glucose in your bloodstream, your body makes glucose by secreting cortisol, which breaks down your lean muscles, bones and brain to make amino acids that then convert to glucose in your liver. What this means is that if you're not getting enough healthy carbs in your diet, your body will produce cortisol to make the glucose it needs for optimal function. This is one of the reasons why I do not recommend chronic fasting or time-restricted eating. While it can be very beneficial in the short-term to aid in weight loss, over time, it can result in chronically elevated cortisol, which will age you prematurely. As noted in a study in the journal Nutrients, “A diet high in carbohydrate was shown to reduce cortisol and negative mood after stress and carbohydrate loading was shown to increase performance and inhibit the typical cortisol increase in response to prolonged exercise.”

Exercise to Increase Endorphins and Reduce Stress RelatedCortisol

Engaging in regular physical activity is another potent strategy for reducing stress. Exercise prompts your body to release endorphins, often referred to as the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Exercise can improve overall mood and counters the detrimental effects of stress by lowering cortisol levels, your body's primary stress hormone. Exercise also promotes proper sleep. So, overall, physical activity can significantly contribute to your emotional and physical equilibrium. Exercise is also key to a longer life , in part because it lowers the impact of stress on your body. Decreasing cortisol levels with regular physical activity will help you reduce


your risk of stress-related health complications.

The Power of Positivity and Cognitive Activity Can ProtectAgainst Stress Cycle

You can also avoid some of the most the damaging effects of the stress cycle on both physical and mental health with a bit of positive thinking and maintaining a hopeful and optimistic outlook. This shift in perspective encourages your brain to produce chemicals that can break you out of the stress cycle. There are activities that can guide you towards a more positive mindset. These include mindfulness , gratitude journaling and spending time in nature. Taking a proactive approach can reduce current stress levels and reduce your susceptibility to falling into the stress cycle when life gets more hectic.

Creative Solution to the Stress Cycle

Creative thinking and hobbies can provide therapeutic escape from the stress cycle, offering mental diversions that rejuvenates both your mind and body. Activities like painting, writing, or playing a musical instrument stimulate your brain's creativity centers, reducing the production of stress hormones and increasing feelings of happiness and satisfaction. Creative thinking can also go beyond hobbies, and be directly applied to avoiding future stressful situations. This approach not only aids in developing innovative solutions to stress-inducing problems but also enriches the mind and can offer a sense of purpose and control over your environment.

Is Laughter the Best Medicine?

The old adage that laughter is the best medicine exists for a reason. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, your body's natural stress-relievers, making it a potent


antidote to stress. Compare this with cynical distrust , which is associated with increased risk for dementia. Laughing sparks a brief period of action in the cardiovascular system followed by muscle relaxation. This physical change in the body mirrors the beneficial effects of physical exercise when it comes to reducing stress. Incorporating humor into daily life can transform a dour and stressful atmosphere of stress into one of lightheartedness. By seeking out comedy in life or in the content you consume, individuals can create opportunities for laughter, offering a simple yet effective escape from the cycle of stress.

Manage the Stress Cycle by Taking Care of Yourself

Self-soothing techniques are essential tools for managing stress and navigating through difficult emotions. Many benefit from meditation and mindful observation, which can reduce the intensity of stress responses. Controlled nasal breathing activates your body's relaxation response, helping to slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. Progressive muscle relaxation and autogenics can also help you cope with stress and facilitate a pathway out of stress. Autogenics, developed by German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz in the early 20th century, it is based on the principle that physical relaxation can lead to mental calmness. The technique involves a series of exercises in which you focus on sensations of warmth and heaviness in different parts of your body to induce a sense of deep relaxation. Practitioners often use phrases like "my arms are very heavy" or "my heartbeat is calm and regular" to help deepen the relaxation experience. Even crying can serve as a natural and therapeutic release valve for pent-up emotions and stress. While often viewed as a sign of weakness, crying is, in fact, a sign of


emotional intelligence and resilience, offering a means to self-regulate and cope with stress.

Proper Breathing Is Crucial for Optimal Health

Dysfunctional breathing habits are typically developed in response to some type of emotional trauma. The trauma gets embedded in your brain circuits, and when you encounter triggers, they activate specific breathing habits, some of which may significantly lower your carbon dioxide (CO ) concentration level. Unfortunately, many popular deep breathing methods exacerbate the situation, as they promote overbreathing and can trigger a wide range of physiological changes. CO serves as a vasodilator that is critical for oxygen transport and gut health but is overlooked in many deep breathing methods. That so much of what you have learned about breathing and popular breathing methods are offbase may seem like yet another stressor but and my interview with Dr. Peter Litchfield will help you build better breathing habits and also explain the importance of CO .

Other Stress Busting Tools

Optimizing your sleep is another essential tool in your toolbox. Quality sleep does much more than simply alleviate tiredness, it helps to repair and rejuvenate your brain and body, enhances cognitive function, improves mood, and promotes greater stress resilience. During sleep, your body undergoes various recovery processes, including the consolidation of memories and the regulation of hormones that influence stress and emotions, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Lack of adequate sleep can exacerbate stress levels, making it harder to handle daily pressures and disrupting the body's natural ability to recover from stress. Establishing a


regular sleep schedule, and creating a conducive sleep environment are essential strategies in breaking the stress cycle and enhancing overall health.

The Healing Power of Hugs

Last but not least, remember the importance of physical contact. Hugs offer more than immediate comfort in a stressful situation; they can release oxytocin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in reducing stress and increasing emotional bonding. The interpersonal touch, especially through hugs, fosters a sense of belonging and support, key components in managing stress and overcoming emotional turmoil. Studies indicate that individuals who receive hugs more frequently are less likely to experience severe stress and depression symptoms. So, incorporating regular, consensual hugs into your daily interactions can serve as an effective strategy in stress management. On a larger scale, doing our part to encourage a culture that values kindness and compassion could pave the way for healthier, more emotionally connected communities, which would lower stress for everyone.

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