Stress Cycles

I have seen several incarnations of the stress cycle in the last few days and wanted to comment on it. The stress cycle is the one we are most familiar with in a biological and psychological sense. We experience small stress cycles and large stress cycles in every moment of our day. Small stress cycles can include how we are going to make it across a busy street and making it out the door on time for work. The cycle has two determining factors that help us cope with it: duration and intensity. Crossing the street is typically a short cycle with low to moderate intensity. Getting to work on time is larger than the street and can be more or less intense depending on how much of a morning person you are.

Duration refers to how long it takes for us to experience the full effect of the stress. Like with exercise, you have a warm up the workout itself and a cool down followed by a period of rest where you aren’t exercising. Stress has a warm up, where you can start to sense something is wrong, the crest of the cycle where the stress is fully manifested, the cool down where you are returning to normal and then the rest period where you have a waiting period before the stress starts to warm up again.

The exercise analogy applies to both the physical and psychological stress. Exercise itself is a type of physical stress on your body that can have positive and negative consequences. Today I was dancing in my Nia class and experienced a physical stress cycle that is larger in duration and moderate in intensity. All athletes have these sorts of spots on their bodies and anyone who has had a serious injury also deals with them. I was warming up for my dance doing some rib isolations when I had a sharp twinge just to the left of my belly button. This is the spot where 3 years ago I seriously pulled one of my muscles in my core and had to nurse it back to health very slowly and carefully so as not to herniate the muscle. This is a larger stress cycle because it takes a long time for enough stress to wear down this muscle to the point where I have a reaction like I did. Skiing all week and the few minutes of plank poses I used to start my day today made it more fatigued than usual for this class and at a point it said “nope, I’m done” and gave me the reminder to chill out.

The psychological stress can be both obvious and subtle. A big project, a looming deadline and eva plodding pace toward completion and you will feel the stress. This manifests itself in a racing heart, shortness of breath, and a whole slew of other biological indicators. My favorite being the shutting down of your digestive system. Most people when they’re stressed can go a long time without eating. And those who eat to help with stress aren’t hungry, but eating for comfort. Biologically speaking, we lose our appetite.

The more subtle stresses are amazing in there ability to hinder us. The most extreme version of subtle stress I read about was manifested in the author J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. His story is remarkable. When he was a child, his older brother died. His mother went into one of those classic Victorian mourning fits and reminded little J.M. every day that his dead brother was the better brother how she wished he had lived. The best were the comments on how now his older brother would always be the better brother because he would never leave his mother. The stress of his mother in this mourning fit (which lasted for 10 years, by the way) was enough to stop James’s ability to grow. Seriously, the kid stopped growing. The author was below 5 feet tall when he died. Though he grew facial hair and had a deepened voice, his testosterone never reached a level high enough where he was sexually attracted to women…or men. He had an unconsummated marriage and the time men normally spent with chasing tail, he filled with writing novels and plays about boys who never grow up, or die and come back to life to marry their mothers.

So although it’s unlikely the stress we experience in day to day life will hinder our growth, it will keep us from new cell growth, proper digestion, and keep our reproductive system in a hibernating state until the stress hormone levels decrease.

So how do we deal with day to day stresses both obvious and subtle?

We are all different and while deep breathing may work for someone, I hate it and find it makes me feel more paralyzed. But by all means, this is a classic stress coping technique with oodles of research to back it up, so please try it.

You can also get yourself out of the stressful environment. Either through actually leaving or visualization. Visualization has also been proven to be an effective sleep technique. Coincidence? No way, sleep is all about moving your body to a state of restoration. Stress does the opposite where it destroys and stops processes of healing. So try visualizing your favorite vacation spot or something more mundane, but seemingly soothing. I picture sitting at my parent’s kitchen counter while my mom works at the stove stirring something in her big orange dutch oven. I play out conversations with her that often lead me to solutions to the stress that is either occurring around me or keeping me awake.

You can also try sipping something hot in the colder months or cool in the warmer months. The act of drinking something reminds our body to start digesting something and has an effect of pushing away some of the stress. My favorite is hot chocolate or simply steamed milk with some flavored syrup (hazelnut!). My mom sometimes takes the time to brew hot tea and my dad will go with a cup of coffee. In the summer I love tonic with lime or some fruity iced tea.

There is also tons of support for the effects of exercise. This morning one of my fellow dancers was thrilled with “the opportunity to sweat”. Remember in middle school gym class where that was unheard of? Yeah, not any more. Sweat is in, people. Get on that bandwagon ASAP. And I don’t necessarily view it as exercise, but like my classmate more an opportunity for sweat, movement, releasing toxins from my body. Exercise is a forbidden word to me and implies grunting and running on a treadmill. Ugh, treadmills. I have friends who love them and would never be caught in a dance class. In any case they have something that makes them move and, oh man this is amazing, they DRINK WATER! Yup, they drink something, thus perpetuating the stress releasing cycle.

Ok, one final note. Have you ever dealt with some seriously stressful circumstances and come out of them only to be knocked on your butt with a cold or flu? Classic body coping mechanism. Aside from the obvious of your immune system being weakened by stress, there is a series of rat studies done by the California University system that shows rats who are put in prolonged stressful situations come out of those rigors showing flu-like symptoms. To me it seems like my muscle twinge where your body says “Enough! Now I will incapacitate you for a while so you have to be in a non-stressful environment.”

Interesting, no? Yes. Just remember it’s a cycle and you will get out of the stressful situation in time and you have the control of how long it takes for it to go away and when it will return.

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