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Alcohol and Mental Health

The Stress Response Cycle: What It Is and How To Complete It

July 10, 2023
10 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 10, 2023
10 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 10, 2023
10 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 10, 2023
10 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 10, 2023
10 min read

Life tends to ebb and flow between tranquility and tumult. One moment, we may find ourselves peacefully basking in the serenity of a quiet afternoon; the next moment, we’re plunged into a whirlwind of urgent tasks and tight deadlines. Although these unexpected shifts are common, they’re also unsettling. They punctuate what should ideally be the serenity of our daily existence with seemingly unending episodes of stress.

Often, in our quest for some semblance of comfort and ease, we find ourselves reaching for a tempting glass of wine or a chilled beer. But here's the caveat: alcohol, as soothing as it may seem, doesn't actually dampen the stress — it merely fans its flames.

Common Situations That Trigger the Stress Response

A broad spectrum of situations can trigger stress in our lives: the relentless demands of a high-pressure job, the all-consuming anxiety of financial instability, the conflict in our personal relationships, or even the sudden loss of a loved one.

Amid these emotionally charged scenarios, we might find ourselves instinctively gravitating towards alcohol, believing that alcohol might offer us a fleeting respite, a short-lived escape from our stressors. But the reality is different. Alcohol doesn't really help us deal with stress. Instead, it merely casts a momentary illusion of relaxation and calm. In the long run, it leaves us more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of stress, pushing us deeper into the labyrinth of mental and physical unrest.

To better navigate the terrain of stress, we need to understand the stress response cycle, a physiological mechanism ingrained in our bodies.

Stages of the Stress Response Cycle: Alarm

The stress cycle starts with the alarm stage. This is the phase when our body, recognizing the threat, slips into the well-known “fight or flight” mode. Our heart races, adrenaline courses through our veins, and our senses sharpen. This is our body’s primal response to perceived danger, a throwback to our early human ancestors who faced physical threats to their survival.

Stages of the Stress Response Cycle: Resistance

Once the alarm stage has run its course, we enter the resistance stage. Our parasympathetic nervous system may lower the stress response if we feel that the threat has run its course.

If the stressor persists, our bodies try to adapt and keep up. We remain in a state of heightened arousal, albeit with reduced intensity. This can lead to continued increases in our stress hormones and symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, frustration, and irritability.

Stages of the Stress Response Cycle: Exhaustion  

The final phase of the stress response cycle is the exhaustion stage. This is the point when our bodies, having been in a relentless state of high alert, begin to deplete their resources. Fatigue sets in. We might experience emotional burnout, feel depressed, and get sick more easily (an indicator that our immune system isn’t functioning optimally). This stage underscores that our bodies are crying out for rest and recuperation.

Over time, this continual state of stress can even lead to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and even stomach ulcers.

Completing the Stress Response Cycle

The good news is that we have the power to break this cycle, to hit the pause button, and allow our bodies to reset. The key lies in successfully completing the stress response cycle. How do we do that?

  • Move your body. Exercise serves as a vital conduit for the release of pent-up tension and stress. A brisk walk in the park, a quick run, or a rejuvenating yoga session can help the body shake off stress. Moreover, these physical activities trigger the release of endorphins, hormones that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators, further bolstering our ability to cope with stress.
  • Get creative. Whether it’s painting a vivid landscape, writing a captivating story, crafting a delectable meal, or strumming a soothing melody on a guitar, creative activities demand our attention, diverting it away from our stressors. More than that, they provide a sense of achievement, a feeling that we have created something beautiful, done something worthwhile. This helps restore our self-worth and sense of efficacy, which often take a hit when we're stressed.
  • Laugh it out. Humor and laughter are potent antidotes to stress. Sharing a hearty laugh with a group of friends, or even indulging in a solo comedy movie marathon, can help alleviate stress. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, enhances our intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates our heart and lungs, and significantly reduces our body’s level of stress hormones.
  • Shed a few tears. Crying, contrary to popular belief, isn't a sign of weakness. It is a natural and healthy response to stress. When we allow ourselves the freedom to shed tears, we're enabling a cathartic release of intense emotions. Crying can help reduce stress levels and may even elicit support from others around us, further soothing our frayed nerves.
  • Seek comfort. Physical comfort, especially from someone we trust, is another powerful tool to combat stress. A warm hug from a friend, a comforting pat on the back, or even the reassuring presence of a loved one can reduce stress hormones and increase our feelings of safety and security. In fact, touch is so essential to our well-being that it's often dubbed the “'mother of all senses.”
  • Connect with your breath. Deep breathing exercises, despite their apparent simplicity, profoundly impact our stress levels. When we consciously slow our breathing, we're signaling our bodies to shift gears — to move from the frenetic “fight or flight” response to a calmer state of “'rest and digest.”
  • Get some rest. We often underestimate the healing power of a good night's sleep. Sleep is our body's downtime, a period dedicated to repair, rejuvenation, and the consolidation of memories. By making sure we get adequate, quality sleep, we provide our bodies with the best possible defense against stress.

Key Takeaways

The stress response cycle, at its core, is a natural part of our existence, a survival mechanism handed down to us from our ancestors. However, when stress morphs from an acute, short-lived response to a chronic condition, it's imperative to find healthier ways to cope. Alcohol might seem like a quick fix, but it's far from being a solution. Instead, understanding and successfully navigating the stress response cycle is the key to effective stress management.

Remember that we are not just creatures who survive: we are beings who thrive. Stress might be a part of our lives, but it doesn't have to take over our lives. The power to cope, to reset, and to prevail lies within us. We all possess the innate capacity to endure and flourish.

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