How stress stays with us + what you can do about it
Two weeks ago, we were due to fly out to Japan for the wedding of a dear friend.
We hadn’t been to Japan since our honeymoon. It is a truly magical country and we were very excited about the trip.
Planning to take a toddler on a trip like this is no small feat, but we were thrilled for her to take her first international trip. She was excited too. She even had a pair of chopsticks that she’d been practicing with that she planned to use there.
The Sunday of our trip, I scooped my toddler from her nap and immediately noticed that she had a temperature. Uh oh.
With six hours to go until our flight, we rushed to the closest children’s urgent care. She tested negative for everything, but was burning up and extremely uncomfortable. We rebooked our flight for two days later and crossed our fingers that she would be on the mend after a good night’s sleep and Motrin.
The next day, we brought her back to the doctor and new symptoms had popped up. At that point we knew what it was and we weren’t worried, but all we could do was wait it out. Traveling with her was not an option. We decided to have my husband attend the wedding on behalf of our family; I’d stay back with her and focus on getting her well.
Without getting into the nitty gritty, the week was one of the most challenging I’ve experienced as a parent. Her fever was unrelenting and she’d only sleep if I was next to her (if she slept at all), she clung to me, and her symptoms were ever-changing. My heart broke for her, and yet I was trying not to go mad from sleep deprivation and not having a moment to myself.
Throw in another family medical emergency that involved the ER (all ended up being fine) and well, sigh.
My husband came back a week later, I was relieved and yet my stress didn’t go away.
The idea is that events in our everyday lives are constantly triggering fight, flight or freeze responses in our systems. What I didn’t understand is that if we don’t take the time to actually complete the stress cycle, the stress just builds in our system and the next time a stressor comes up, we are even more easily triggered.
In order to be our best selves, the best thing we can do after stressful situations is to complete the stress cycle.
So how do we do that?
7 Steps to Complete the Stress Cycle (all evidence based!):
- Physical activity: it’s the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle. Literally any movement of your body - running, walking, dancing, yoga - recommended for a minimum of 20 minutes. There’s even an exercise in the book where you tense and release your muscles, if working out isn’t your thing.
- Breathe: deep, slow breaths. This technique is best for when stress isn’t that high, or for when you need to siphon off the worst of the stress to buy yourself time until you can do something more hardcore later. It’s also a good place to start if dealing with trauma, as it’s the most gentle. Try: breathe in for a slow count of five, hold breath for count of five, exhale for slow count of ten, then pause for another count of five. Repeat three times.
- Positive social interaction: it’s an external sign that reminds us (and our brains) that the world is a safe place. A casual, friendly, interaction is enough here, i.e. buy a coffee and wish the barista a nice day.
- Laughter: it’s an ancient evolutionary system that helps us regulate emotions. This isn’t social laughter, it’s deep belly laughs. Call your funniest friend, or save those memes from social media, and turn to them when you need to.
- Affection: try 1) kissing your partner for six seconds, and/or 2) hugging someone you care about for 20 seconds. The idea is that each of these is long enough that it requires you stop and deliberately notice that you like the person, that you trust them, and that you feel affection for them. By noticing those things, the kiss/hug tells your body that you are safe with that person. Good news: petting a beloved pet works here too!
- Cry: a way to physically express the stress out of your body.
- Creative expression: painting, sculpture, music, theater, and storytelling in all forms all create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions.
Can I just tell myself “I’m ok now?” Nope, there’s science to show that approach doesn’t work. Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shift. That means its not a box you can check. Your body will tell you when it's ready.
In fact, if we’ve let stress accumulate inside for days or weeks, one workout won’t get the job done. You’ll feel better, but not done. For optimal performance you may want to make some of these exercises part of a daily maintenance routine.
Here’s how I completed my stress cycle(s):
- Started with a massage, as my body was so out of whack from carrying my toddler around.
- Met a friend for breakfast; we laughed over stories from when we both lived in NYC.
- Cried more times than I care to share. Lol.
- Started to incorporate exercise back into my day.
The biggest lesson for me was rather than jumping immediately back into work and all the to-dos that piled up, I took some extra time to decompress from what had been a very stressful experience. It made all the difference. That’s long term thinking.
Looking for more? This book dives into understanding and treating traumatic stress.
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