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The alarm, resistance, and exhaustion stages of the stress response cycle help your body respond to stress. Learning how to complete the stress cycle may help you cope.

Everyone experiences stress at one time or another. It might be something as simple as a looming deadline or as emotional as the death of a loved one that triggers your stress levels.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is the physical or mental response to an external cause that can be either positive or negative.

No matter the cause, many people who deal with a stressful situation will go through the stress response cycle. While there’s no one way to manage stress, completing this natural sequence of steps can help you cope with your situation healthily.

There are simple ways to help yourself effectively work through your reactions to stress, so your body and mind can recover.

an infographic showing the different stages of the stress response cycleShare on Pinterest
Infographic by Bailey Mariner

To understand the stress response cycle, you first must understand how stress affects the body.

Research from 2021 suggests that when experiencing stress-induced physiological changes, you may experience the following stages:

  • alarm
  • resistance
  • exhaustion

Alarm

If you encounter an acute stressor or danger, an area of the brain called the amygdala sends signals to another region called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus functions as the brain’s command center — transporting information to the rest of the body via the nervous system.

When the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, adrenal glands respond by releasing the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream.

This can lead to several physiological changes, such as fast breathing, a rapid heartbeat, an energy surge, and increased alertness.

Your body’s complex response to stress is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s the same strategy that animals and early human ancestors used when encountering danger.

Resistance

Once the sense of threat or danger has passed, your parasympathetic nervous system puts the “brakes” on and lessens the body’s stress response. But you may stay alert to observe if you feel safe and have obtained balance within your body.

If you still sense that you are unsafe, stress hormones will increase, and you might experience symptoms such as:

  • poor concentration
  • irritability
  • frustration

Exhaustion

If you aren’t able to complete the stress cycle, your body may repeat its stress response. Prolonged and chronic stress can take its toll, leading to:

  • heart disease
  • stomach ulcers
  • sleep dysregulation
  • psychiatric disorders
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • fatigue
  • burnout

There are several research-based ways to help complete the stress cycle and manage your body’s response to a tense situation. Consider the tips below to help you cope.

Physical activity

In a fight, flight, or freeze scenario being active may help you survive the threat and keep your body safe. You can imitate this natural response with exercise.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity each week for substantial health benefits.

Consider engaging in the following activities:

  • jogging
  • playing your favorite sport
  • dancing
  • hiking
  • swimming
  • pilates
  • lifting weights

No matter the physical activity you choose, try to experiment with activities you enjoy. Everyone is different.

Creativity

Doing something creative, such as drawing, writing, knitting, gardening, or cooking, can help your body recover from a stressful event and boost energy levels. The key is to try something that you enjoy.

Laughing

Laughter is a useful way to release and express emotions you keep bottled up. Some easy ways to help induce laughter are to recall a funny story, watch a funny movie, or visit some friends who make you laugh.

Crying

Crying is another way that your body releases stress. When you suppress your tears, you’re could be stopping yourself from a natural part of your recovery.

Physical affection

Research from 2020 indicates that physical comfort from a loved one can help mimic the safety step of the stress response cycle. If you consent to the touch and feel safe, physical comfort can support your mental and physical health.

Some experts recommend a long, 20-second (minimum) hug, which helps activate the release of oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” Another option is to cuddle with a pet, which may improve your mental health and reduce stress.

You can also provide yourself with physical affection through:

  • self-massage
  • moving your hand in small circular motions on your chest
  • embracing yourself in a hug

Deep breathing

Slow, deep breathing can help your body regulate its stress response. Some examples of deep breathing exercises include:

  • square breathing: 4-second inhale, 4-second hold, 4-second exhale, 4-second hold
  • 4,7,8 breath: 4 seconds inhale, 7-second hold, 8second exhale

Exercises, such as tai chi, qi gong, and yoga combine deep breathing with fluid movements to help generate calmness.

Rest

Getting enough rest, including a full night’s sleep, can ensure that your body will recover from stressful events. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

Coping with a stressful event can be tricky. But finding ways to mimic the stress response cycle, which involves physical activity, finding a safe place, and resting can help you cope with your stress.

You might want to try a breathing app, such as Calm, Insight Timer, or KORU to help you regulate your stress levels throughout the day.

If stress interferes with your daily life, becomes severe, or doesn’t go away, consider talking with a professional mental health expert who can help you identify other strategies to cope.