The Stress Response Cycle: The Surprising Science Behind Feeling Better

The internet is littered with infinite content on managing stress. Most of them don’t know what they are talking about. The basic premise is always to “learn to chill”. But if it were so simple, there wouldn’t have been so many motivational videos and blog posts in the first place.

Stress is a physiological phenomenon, and unless we understand the science behind it, we cannot possibly know how to manage it. In her phenomenal book, Come As You Are, sex educator Emily Nagoski talks about the physiology of stress, and gives us important pointers to deal with it.

Let’s start by separating stressors from stress. Your stressors are the things that activate the stress response. For example, exams, bills, family, office, fretting about your career, all of that.

Your stress is the system of changes activated in your brain and body in response to those stressors. We refer stress as the fight-or-flight response, but its full description is: fight, flight, or freeze response. Stress is an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism that allows you to respond to perceived threats, such as being chased by a lion.

These days we are not chased by lions, and yet our body’s response to threats such as an incompetent boss is largely the same as it would be to a lion. Our primitive brain doesn’t differentiate much.

When your brain perceives a threat, you experience a massive biochemical and physiological change. Your bloodstream is flooded by adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure increases. Your immune and digestive functioning gets suppressed. Your pupils are dilated thereby shifting you into a vigilant and battle-ready state. You body prepares itself for the action to come.

What the “action” will be depends on the nature of the perceived threat. If it’s a lion, your brain informs you it’s the kind of threat that you are most likely to survive by trying to escape—flight. If the lion doesn’t get hold of you, you reach your village safely, and rejoice in relief.

There are times when your brain decides that you can best survive a threat by conquering—fight. You jump on the thief who tries to run off with your wallet.

This is the stress response cycle. It starts with a stressor (when your brain screams, I’m at risk), action (fight or flight), and relief (I’m safe). These two responses—fight and flight—are both accelerator stress response—the “GO!”

But suppose a stressor is such that your brain determines that you can neither survive it by escaping nor by conquering. The lion has already grabbed you, you don’t have any weapons to attack, and it’s too late to run. Your body has undergone a series of changes to prepare itself to deal with the threat, but this time you get the brakes stress response—the freeze—the “STOP!” instead of the “GO!” Your body shuts down. You can’t move, or can move only sluggishly. You senses slow down and you become dizzy. You surrender!

Animals in the wild play possum as a last-ditch effort to convince a predator that they’re already dead. Surrender also facilitates a painless death. But if an animal survives such an intense threat to its life, it shakes before getting up. It trembles. Its paws vibrate. It heaves a great big sigh. And then it gets up, shakes itself off before trotting away.

What’s happening here is that freeze has interrupted the “GO!” stress response of fight or flight, leaving all that adrenaline to go stale inside the animal’s body. When the animal shakes and shudders and sighs, its body releases the brake, completes the process triggered by fight/flight, and purges the residue, thereby completing the cycle.

My girlfriend underwent surgery a couple of years back. After coming out of anaesthesia, she started screaming and yelling with any obvious cause. Emily Nagoski calls it “the Feels”. Anaesthesia is medically induced freeze. She wasn’t in any danger, but she had a lot of Feels that needed to work themselves out in order to complete the cycle. Only rarely in our everyday lives does unlocking from freeze take such a dramatic form, but even in its smaller scale, that’s how the stress response cycle works, beginning, middle, and end—all innately built into the nervous system. The cycle needs to complete in order to relieve stress.

It sounds very simple, and it is. But stress is more complex in us humans due to modernity and other cultural reasons. For starters, modern stressors are lower in intensity and longer in duration—chronic stressors, in contrast to acute stressors like being chased by a lion.

Acute stressors have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Completing the cycle—running, surviving, celebrating—is inherently built in. It’s not so with chronic stressors. If our stress is chronic and we don’t take deliberate steps to complete the cycle, all that activated stress just hangs out inside us, making us sick, tired, and unable to experience pleasure in anything.

On top of that, our emotion-dismissing culture is uncomfortable with the Feels. As a result, most people’s idea of stress management is some version of “just relax” as if stress can be turned off like a light switch.

But most importantly, our ultrasocial human brains are really good at self-inhibition, stopping the stress response mid-cycle because “now is not an appropriate time for the Feels”—especially if you are in a public pace. We use this self-inhibition in order to facilitate social cooperation. We don’t want to freak anybody out, do we?

But unfortunately, our culture has eliminated all appropriate times for Feels. We’ve locked ourselves, culturally, into our own fear, rage, and despair. Hence most people resort to doing things that distract them from stress, such as alcohol, endless partying, binging on fast-food and Netflix. They’re all intended to do one thing: manage the underlying feelings. But it can be done in a healthy way as well. We just have to build time, space, and strategies for discharging our stress response cycles. That is the only way to deal with stress.

Think about what your body recognises as the behaviours that save you from lions. When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do? You run. So when you’re stressed out by your job, what do you do? You run…or walk, or get on a bicycle, or go out dancing.

Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy to complete the stress response cycle, and recalibrate your central nervous system into a calm state. When people say, “Exercise is good for stress,” that is for real.

Alan Turing famously ran miles everyday to relieve stress. When asked why he does that he said, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard; it’s the only way I can get some release.”

In his phenomenal book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain , the author John J. Ratey, who’s an MD, talks about how simple physical actives like running, jogging, skipping can help us become not only fitter, but also happier and sharper.

In communities like No Lights No Lycra (NLNL), strangers gather to dance in the dark together, all sober, to shake the blues away. They are present in over 75 locations around the world, including Mumbai.

If you really want to move your body, you don’t have to go very far. Your home can become your stage. I personally, love to dance. Not that I’m a good dancer, but I love this as an activity to release inhibitions, move moods, and work up a sweat.

Few other activities that help you “feel better” are: sleep, humour, affection, meditation, allowing yourself a good old cry, or a primal scream.

Sleep is essentially trauma and stress therapy, and I cannot “stress” more upon the importance of 8 hrs of daily sleep, no matter what.

If you are naturally humorous, it helps. If you are comfortable enough to crack bad jokes just to keep yourself entertained, it helps as well. Since we’re spending so much of time together after the lockdown, my girlfriend and I do this all the time. We crack silly jokes that others would find weird, childish, and sometimes even stupid. But this helps us deal with the day-to-day tribulations related to work and household chores.

A warm affectionate hug from your partner, your friend, or your parents is a great stress reliever. An affectionate hug essentially says, “You’re okay. You got it. It’s gonna be fine.” Hug more. Hug often.

If you’ve ever locked yourself in your room and sobbed for ten minutes or got on the top of a building and shouted your lungs out, and then at the end heaved a great big sigh and felt tremendously relieved, you have essentially helped yourself complete the stress response cycle.

Art, used in the same way, can help. My girlfriend’s sister does paintings in gouache. It started out as a hobby, but eventually it became a way discharge stress through the creative process. Journaling helps in similar ways. When mental health professionals suggest journaling or other expressive hobbies, they don’t mean that the construction of sentences or the task of drawing is inherently therapeutic, rather they are encouraging you to complete the cycle by pursuing little creative endeavours.

One of my girlfriend's sister's work

Don’t forget to treat yourself with affection during stressful times. I’ve known people for whom a hot shower and the rituals of painting their nails or doing their hair or putting on makeup fully transition them from a stressed-out state of mind to a warm, social state of mind.

These rituals and behaviours are forms of self-kindness. Apes eat insects out of each other’s fur. Bath bombs and body glitters are the modern human equivalent.

My point is, everybody has something that works—and everyone’s strategy is different. Whatever strategy you use, take deliberate steps to complete the cycle. Allow yourself to coast to the end without hitting the brake. As Emily Nagoski says, emotions are like tunnels; you have to walk all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the end. Yes, there’s light at the end.

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