Is Your Stress Response Cycle In Overdrive? These 7 Tips Can Help
Stress, unfortunately, is inevitable. While stress is bound to happen, there are preventive methods and opportunities in our everyday lives to make it more manageable. One of these ways is especially simple and doesn't require any fancy tools, money spent, or difficult commitments. It's rest.
Author Ashley Neese teaches people in her book, Permission to Rest, about the stress response cycle and how proper rest can significantly improve stress levels. She is a trauma-informed breathwork teacher and somatic practitioner who has helped thousands of people with chronic stress, anxiety, and exhaustion live healthier lives. With over 15 years of experience, Neese is an expert in the field, and she shares her wisdom through a compilation of scientific research, personal essays, contemplative questions, and somatic practices in her book.
Courtesy of Ashley Neese
Below is an excerpt from Permission to Rest by Ashley Neese:
The Stress Response Cycle
Many of us aren’t spending enough time in a restorative state each day. Instead, we are operating in chronic survival mode, either consciously or unconsciously. Often, we are in survival mode because we are caught in a stress response cycle. For the most part, stress these days isn’t a one-time event with a single cause and reaction. Stress is a cycle that has several phases.
A stressful incident can increase heart rate and breathing, disrupt digestion, and tense the muscles. These symptoms often show up when we email or text. This phenomenon, known as email apnea, was discovered by Linda Stone, a writer, researcher, and former executive at Apple and Microsoft. Stone observed that a majority of people, nearly 80 percent, unconsciously hold their breath, or breathe shallowly, when responding to email or texting. I encourage you to pay attention to your breath the next time you email or text. You might be surprised how often you’re in a stress response!
In cases of complex and collective trauma, we are navigating the confusion of trying to function by oscillating between hyperarousal and hypoarousal, spending little to no time in the healing of our parasympathetic or social engagement (ventral vagal) systems. Complex trauma refers to a series of traumatic events that take place over a long period of time, like months or years. Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event or events shared by a group of people. It may involve a small group, like a family, or it may involve an entire population or society.
When our bodies are conditioned or wired to being more in a sympathetic nervous system state, or hyperarousal, our stress levels are often running on high and we are easily triggered. When we get triggered by something environmental (such as a looming work deadline) or psychological (such as a persistent worry), it can activate a cascade of stress hormones like cortisol that produce physiological changes in our bodies.
This blend of biological responses to stress is often called the fight-or-flight response, because it evolved as a very efficient way for us to survive, enabling us humans and other mammals to react at hyper speed to life-threatening situations. This well-orchestrated and almost immediate chain of hormone changes and physiological responses gives our bodies what they need to fight or flee at the mere perception of threat to ensure the safety and longevity of our species. Like most biological processes, the stress response cycle has a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately, because of widespread systemic oppression, the state of our environment, and the speed of our culture, many of us are often in an unconscious fight-or-flight response in our daily lives. Because of this, our stress response cycle often goes through the first two stages and never seems to end or complete itself. We don’t get out of the cycle; instead, we roll right into the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
Living in a state of chronic stress negatively affects our physical and psychological health, which makes resting out of reach. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body, contributing to anxiety, depression, and addiction. If left unchecked, this can lead to burnout, a global mental health issue. Many of us catapult from one stressful experience to the next, driven by a combination of any unhealed trauma, the rapid pace of our society, and the myriad issues we face as humans. Trauma occurs when the psychological stress of a situation is greater than our capacity to cope in the moment or shortly after. Trauma can also occurs through witnessing others being hurt, either in person or through our screens. In addition, continual and repeated exposure to discrimination can elicit trauma physiology.
When we are trapped in the stress response cycle, we are unable to bring the cycle to an end. This robs us of the ability to get the rest and recovery we desperately need. Each repeated incomplete loop of stress stacks on top of each other, making it not only challenging to sleep, relax, and enjoy life but weakening our motivation and capacity to handle the next triggering event or situation.
Our rest suffers. Our lives suffer. Our communities suffer.
Living in survival mode keeps us rushing and rushing, avoiding the deeper work that we need to do for ourselves, our communities, and our Earth. We need to learn how to get out of the depleting cycle of survival mode when it’s safe enough to do so and begin the practice of resting in the presence of ourselves. Life is full of stress and that is never going to change. We are facing so much each day. So much grief, pain, uncertainty, and injustice. We need practices to help us regroup, regulate, and rest in order to show up and be part of the transformation that we want to embody. The issue isn’t only the stress itself, but how and whether we have the capacity to complete our stress response cycles on a continual basis so that we don’t exist in a chronic state of stress.
Before we continue, I want to mention the difference between capacity and tolerance because this is something I have had to work through in my own life and something that shows up in my practice with clients. Many of us have learned that we can tolerate a great deal in our lives. We have developed strategies to keep pushing forward, running ourselves into depletion, allowing or accepting what we dislike or don’t agree with in order to survive. Just because we can and have tolerated this much, does not mean that we have the capacity to complete our response cycles. In order to build our capacity, we have to begin unpacking what we are tolerating, how that affects our physiology, and practice being with ourselves and the waves of sensations and emotions that arise when we slow down long enough to rest.
Rest Is Renewal
When I first became interested in resting as more than something my body made me do when I was burned out, broken down, and unwell, I didn’t understand that rest can take on many different forms. I also believed that something as natural as rest should be easy. Resting for me was far from easy in the beginning of my practice. What I discovered when I did the work necessary to make resting a priority in my life is that resting has many similarities to breathwork, the main one being it is an essential life practice that many of us were not taught to embody. We are at a loss when it comes to pressing pause in our lives and cultivating rest.
Thankfully, the tides are beginning to turn, and many of us are choosing to opt out of the productivity hustle and opt in to slowing down. By making these choices, we can remind our worn-out bodies that there are many ways to rest, depending on what our needs are in the moment. We can walk in nature, listen to a soothing song, sip a mug of tea, and much more.
In attempting to define rest as a practice, I thought about the rhythms of our bodies, the rhythms of nature; I read about ancient spiritual rituals, read numerous studies on the brain and body, and drew from the rest toolkit I’ve been developing in my own life. I began to define “rest” not simply as cessation of all activity but as a means of going inward, going deeper. Resting is what allows us to go beneath the surface if we make the time for it. Rest gives us the gift of perspective, and rest invites us into new ways of being and showing up in the world.
Rest is relief for our dysregulated and traumatized nervous systems.
Rest is an anchor during life’s most challenging storms.
Rest realigns us with what was forgotten, within our own bodies and within our own lineages.
Rest allows us to remember who we are, to experience our wholeness.
Rest is a rhythm we can surrender into.
Rest is nourishment for the weariness we carry just below the surface, and it’s a remedy for revolutionizing the ways that we live, play, work, connect, and engage with life.
Rest is a biological and spiritual necessity that allows us to quell our chronic depletion, access our innate wisdom, fortify our life force, and support each other and our planet from a place of fullness.
"Permission to Rest” text copyright © 2023 by Ashley Neese. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House.