Breaking the Stress Cycle

Stress is something we cannot avoid in life. Breaking the stress cycle while it is occurring is our best defense against the long-term impacts of stress and keeping our internal batteries charged for overall happiness and success in our life’s endeavors.

I have been working with the International Baccalaureate (IB) students of Ecolint’s Nations Campus for the past month. The Secondary School gave the students the opportunity to learn stress management techniques over two classes to help them break the stress cycle during their exams. 

For those of you that are not familiar with the IB it is rigorous and includes several critical assessment points with the majority of the grade dependant on a series of exams after two years of study. From my experience with the IB, it helps adolescents develop self-leadership skills that put them in a great position for all of their life pursuits. For most, the intensity of the program is perhaps the first real sense of longer-term “performance stress” they experience.

What these students experience parallels workplace stress as the hours are long, there are several milestones to complete and they are required to actively participate in their community, in creative endeavors, and in health-related activities. It is truly “real-life” learning.

Stressors and the stress cycle

Like in business, these major points of assessment are considered to be “stressors” as they generally cause stress and cannot be avoided. They have to be completed, full-stop. Most of us experience points in our lives when we feel overloaded by the combination of work life and home life expectations. This is when having access to stress-busting techniques can really make a difference to your mood, physical health, and ability to function with purpose and clarity.

Stress is our body’s response to stressors and it usually follows a cycle.

  1. First, there is the event that makes us feel stress
  2. This is followed by a bodily activated response triggered by the sympathetic nervous system
  3. And after the event occurs the stress dissipates

In these short stress cycles, the body excretes adrenaline which can be a good thing as it enables us to be laser-focused and ready to perform. This stress is akin to the butterflies in the stomach that everyone talks about. When the event begins the body should settle down and put this laser focus to good use, helping us to perform at our best.

However, if we begin to perform and the stress continues and is prolonged, the body begins to excrete cortisol. It is the build-up of cortisol, from a prolonged or a seemingly “never-ending” stress event that can cause damage to our physical, mental, and emotional health.

An example of this is when you may have experienced prolonged periods of stress and when you finally take a break you become unwell with a cold or flu or perhaps something more serious. This is because the body has been in fight mode for too long and the cortisol has continued to build causing you to mildly collapse when the stressor finally moves off. In the case of extreme burnout, a person experiences an actual physical collapse and hypocortisolism, the inability to produce cortisol. In other words, their body is out of energy, their battery is less than 5% charged.

Five ways to break the stress cycle

To stay healthy and be successful in our endeavors we need to learn how to manage short-term and long-term stress cycles. I have put together a list of easy-to-do techniques to help us break our stress cycles.

1. Physical activity

Physical activity is the number one way to break a stress cycle. I am not talking about having a stress-filled job and then going to a stress-filled competitive-based training session. The concept of work-hard and play-hard is outdated. I prefer work-smart and play-free!

Play-free is about having fun with your choice of physical activity. It could be ballroom dancing, a yoga class, going to the gym, swimming, or taking a brisk walk in nature. I like combining my physical activity with meeting up with different groups of people as it gives me a broader sense of community.

It’s about finding a way to integrate 30 minutes of physical activity into your everyday routine. Find something that is easy and that works.

If you like to compete, go for it. Just be sure you take rest days. As an amateur runner who trained with a coach for years while working in a stressful profession, our coach built-in rest days in our training program and I would try to make one of these days a complete off day where I just hung out with my husband and friends. Be wary of the self-trained physical burnout. It is when we train for a physical event without a coach or a program that we can push ourselves with our go-go mentality and end up injured or depleted before the big event.

2. Learn how to breathe

Breathing is something we all take for granted. If you are a fan of YouTube or love to use Apps there are many opportunities to learn breathing techniques. The trick is to use them once you have learned them.

In his latest book, The Breathing Cure, Patrick McKeown a world-renowned author and breathing practitioner, Patrick gives us both the science and the practical behind why the simple act of breathing can alter your physical and mental health. He includes 26 easy self-practice breathing exercises for adults, children, and teens.

The easiest breathing technique that I like to teach that can move us quickly out of our stress response is to breathe in slowly through the nose for a count of between 5 and 7 and then breathe out as if you are breathing through a straw with pursed lips on a count that is anywhere from 2 to 4 counts longer than your inbreathe. You need to play with this one so that the technique itself does not cause you stress. The ultimate goal is to breathe in on a count of 7 and out on a count of 11.

The main tools and techniques that I teach in my courses and programs all begin with various breathing techniques. It is a matter of discovering the breathing techniques that work best for you and incorporating them into your daily life.

 3. Laugh

“Laughter is the best medicine” really holds true when it comes to breaking the stress cycle. I have a daily habit of watching 10 minutes of something on YouTube that makes me laugh. I have also incorporated a bit of laughter yoga into some of my programs as laughter also incorporates breathing. 

Laughter relaxes the whole body, boosts the immune system by decreasing stress hormones, and triggers the release of endorphins. Besides these physical changes, laughter can also help us shift our perspective. Approaching a problem with humor creates psychological distance from something you might otherwise feel threatened by.

4. Creative moments

Most of us have had a creative pursuit at some point or another in our lives. It could be music, theatre, pottery, painting, sewing, knitting, the possibilities are endless. Time spent being creative is a very “present moment” and mindful activity. It takes us out of our stress-filled situation and our thoughts.

Creativity takes concentration and can be as simple as using one of the now popular mandala coloring books. I found a great one called The Big Swiss Coloring Book, for mindful adults and creative kids, Joanna Moon, Caroline Little, Jante Howell, which not only gives me creative moments but as well takes me on a tour of Switzerland.

5. Meditation

This technique is one of my favorites and I spend time every day doing some form of meditation. Usually, it is either based on Sophrology, Cardiac Coherence or Positive Intelligence. Two of these I use an App for, and the other is my practice. I am also someone that prays daily and prayer is also a form of meditation. I invite you to discover a meditative practice that works for you. 

In my case, Sophrology was the best one as it includes some form of dynamic movement before doing a stilling and visualization. This just resonates well with my personality. Mindful walking or running is also something I do regularly, which helps me connect with the nature around me.

Breaking the Stress Cycle Today

To break the stress cycle I encourage you to engage in regular short daily practices or longer ones that you might consider on weekends or perhaps mid-week. You can think about it like this; If your body was your phone you would be sure to keep your battery charged. You need to plug it in daily and sometimes during the day if you are using it often. Your body is the same. It needs recharging through plugging into your inner self to relax your nervous system. Without this, you might find your battery gets so depleted that you will need a full reset and reprogramming.  It is much easier to tend to your nervous system daily through breaking the stress cycle than to recover from an illness.

If you are looking for some guidance in your pursuit of breaking your stress cycle I invite you to join one of my upcoming courses or workshops. For a more personalized experience, I invite you to a free exploratory call.

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