How to recognise and overcome the stress cycle

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Feeling stressed? Here’s how you can recognise and overcome the stress cycles that’s keeping you up at night and getting in the way of everyday life

Got too much on your plate? You’re not the only one. In fact, 77% of the UK report feeling overwhelmed in the past year and 84% of Americans shared that they feel stress weekly.

Although stress has somewhat become part of our everyday lives, there are ways to identify the different stages, and methods to help counteract symptoms and feelings. As humans, we typically go through what is known as the stress cycle – here’s how to recognise the different stages and how to combat them.

What is the stress cycle? 

From the moment we see or feel stress – whether that be receiving an ‘URGENT’ email or an unwanted phone notification – we go through what is known as the stress cycle, until the stressor has been resolved. Although we all feel and react to stress in different ways, our bodies go through five stages that impact us physically and mentally. 

What are the stages of the stress cycle? 

  1. External stress: An external stressor or event that we find triggering. For example, this could be a meeting with your boss or an unexpected event that caught you off guard. The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as: “The physical or mental response to an external cause, such as having a lot of homework or having an illness. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time.”
  2. Internal appraisal: This stage kicks in before, during, or after the trigger occurs, causing your senses to send signals to your amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotion) to explain that something has gone wrong. 
  3. Physiological responses: Your body will soon enter ‘fight or flight’ mode – you’re likely to feel your heart rate increase.
  4. Internalisation: You're now likely to become aware of the physical signs you're displaying of stress, causing you to worry further about how you are handling the situation. 
  5. Coping: During the final stage, you will engage in activities to alleviate the stressors. Although coping mechanisms can decrease stress, it can increase it in other ways – this is known as maladaptive coping. Maladaptive coping may work in the short-term, for example by distracting yourself with your phone or consuming alcohol, but they will not eliminate the stress and may actually further activate the physiological stress responses in your body.

Three ways to overcome the stress cycle

1. Exercising 

Research has shown that exercising can ease the stress cycle, especially as you enter stage three – otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’ – as your body can imitate a natural response through exercise. It is also recommended that adults participate in at least 150 to 300 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes to five hours) of exercise each week to see substantial health benefits.

2. Physical affection

Spending time with a loved one and receiving physical comfort can mimic the safety needed throughout the stress cycle, according to research. An easy way to achieve this level of comfort is by engaging in a hug with a loved one that lasts around 20 seconds. This will activate the oxytocin, otherwise known as the “cuddle hormone,” which will leave you feeling safe and secure. Likewise, if you don’t have someone you would like to hug, cuddling a pet is another great way to improve your mental health and reduce stress.

3. Rest and recuperate

Our bodies undergo various different changes when we’re experiencing stressful situations, so it’s incredibly important to allocate plenty of time to allow it to rest and restore. Set yourself up with a night-routine that will allow you to enjoy a peaceful night's slumber – we recommend following these six tips. But most importantly, remember to give your body enough time to recuperate – The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults need seven to nine hours each night. 


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