Person experiencing stress with pillow over head on the bed.

Our Stress Cycle

NOVEMBER 30, 2022

The whole concept of stress management used to stress me out.

That was until I understood stress as a cycle. Completing the stress cycle is an intuitive strategy for stress management. When I imagined moving through the stress cycle with my body, then I felt more empowered deal with it.

I like the word “complete” because it sounds like a checkpoint and a chance to reset. Completing the stress cycle feels aligned with the natural world, the shifting of the seasons, changing to the New Year, and other biological functions that run as loops. Of course, I’m thinking of our reproductive cycles, too. Our periods are actually the completion of the reproductive cycle physiologically-speaking, meaning that period symptoms manifest as a culmination of the entire cycle and our whole health experience.

But back to the stress cycle: how does one complete it?

All credit to the book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski for their thoughts and tips below.

First, it’s important to separate the stressors (external) from the stress (internal).

We can’t always remove the stressor. Maybe it’s the cat who wakes us up at 4 AM, the tumultuous relationship we have with the work we love, our dear partner or our child(ren). It’s certainly the world we live in, both socially and environmentally. Separating the external stressors from the stress we experience internally is clarifying and relationally helpful.

We only have so much control over our stressors, and addressing the stressor doesn’t automatically deal with the stress itself.

Second, we handle our stress and complete the stress cycle when we tell our body that it’s no longer in fight, flight or freeze mode, but in a language that it understands -- body language. We can:

Move. 20-60 minutes per day. Any physical activity will do. This tells the body it’s safe, whereas simply telling the body it’s safe doesn’t get the message across. Physical activity is highly effective.

Breathe. Deep and slow. This is a gentle way to handle gentle stress.

Engage with a 20 second, awkwardly-long hug. With someone safe. Physical affection is a great option for some, otherwise just intentionally having a positive social interaction with anyone can help. Laughter is a bonus.

Express creativity or have a good cry to help process emotionally.

Get s restful night’s sleep. It feels so unhelpful to say that sleep is important (duh) but there’s a reason it comes up so often. If we don’t sleep, then a lack of sleep will slowly deteriorate us.

(By the way, these tips don’t come close to spoiling their book. This is just a little insight from Chapter 1 that resonates, especially with the holidays upon us in the West.)

But wait a minute. Those activities sound the same as stress management activities just with a different name.

You’re not wrong.

And stress management might be the goal, but I don’t consider it to be The Plan. Completing the stress cycle is a plan — it has a beginning, a middle, and an end — and it makes stress inherently more manageable through completion. It promotes flow, and it can foster more intentional, well-timed activities to address stress. Before thinking of it this way, I conflated my stressors and my stress and walked around our Earth drenched in what the book refers to as, “stress juices.”

“‘Wellness’ is the freedom to move fluidly through the cycles of being human. Wellness is thus not a state of being; it is a state of action.”

This has changed me. I’m working on being more aware of my stressors and separating them from my stress. When I’m experiencing a high-stress time, then I know to dance with my little one or sneak in a workout or go for a walk with her. I’ve started hugging my husband in the middle of the kitchen for 20 second intervals. Both of these options are also positive social interactions. Both of these options could be replaced with a good cry, conversation with a friend or creative writing if one of those humans is acting as my stressor. If I already had a plan to workout, then I just do that according to my schedule. Layering the concept of completing the stress cycle onto my stress management goal has been a more gratifying way to think about well-timed and intentional activities that efficiently move me in and out of stress.

Is it always that simple? I don’t think so. Or not exactly. There’s a number of reasons why someone may be experiencing stress, and the solutions for that can be complex. But I do think our own body awareness is often part of the solution.

Cheers to completing our stress cycles, our menstrual cycles, and living cyclically,

- Sara

This post is intended to support folks' awareness of the stress cycle. It is not medical advice.

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Fertility Awareness Educator Sara at Reverence Fertility

About the Author

Sara (she/her) is a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner and Fertility Awareness Educator serving clients virtually and locally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since 2016, Sara has used fertility awareness based methods to avoid pregnancy, optimize her fertility, time a pregnancy with her partner and navigate postpartum fertility.