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Eight simple ways to close a stress cycle, according to experts

November 21, 2022, 4:30 PM UTC
Cropped shot of a woman sitting on a sofa and feeling anxious
Closing the stress cycle can help protect your nervous system.
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Back when I was commuting to an office, one of my favorite ways to unwind after an especially stressful workday was throwing some punches—at a cardio kickboxing class, of course. I remember after one particularly heinous Monday, I rushed to the studio, strapped on my gloves and took out all my rage on the punching pads. My instructor could tell something was up and allowed me to go for a few more rounds. Afterward, I felt better and, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning how to successfully close a stress cycle.

The stress cycle was originally studied in the United States by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in the late 1960s, says Tanya Tarr, behavioral scientist and president of Cultivated Insights. Holmes and Rahe began by examining the medical histories of patients to determine whether stressful life events, such as divorce, death of a loved one, home ownership or having children were associated with an increase in illness. 

Statistically, they found overwhelming evidence that increasing levels of stress seemed to contribute directly to physical illness and created The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory to determine a person’s level of stress. And when we don’t take measures to close our stress cycle, we’re doing our mental and physical health a disservice.

“When people worry, it creates a series of responses, both emotional and physical,” says Lynn Lyons, psychotherapist and author of The Anxiety Audit. “Worry happens when we are anticipating something bad happening, but it activates the same system that is designed to protect us when something bad is actually happening.” 

The cycle of worry starts with worry, which triggers the nervous system and activates a physical response. “These symptoms, combined with the scary imaginings of worry, result in avoidance and more worry,” says Lyons. “More worry creates more discomfort, which leads to more avoidance. People get trapped in a cycle of trying to avoid uncertainty or discomfort, which feels good in the short term but makes anxiety worse.”

Intentionally closing the stress cycle, however, can help protect the nervous system and keep it from becoming dysregulated. “Keeping our nervous system healthy can support prevention of longer term chronic illness like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, brain fog, and other conditions that happen when our bodies chronically overproduce adrenaline or cortisol,” says Tarr.

In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, by Drs. Amelia Nagoski and Emily Najoski, the authors recommend short bursts of physical activity as a way to close the stress cycle.

For suggestions on closing a stress cycle, you can try the following:

  1. Go for a walk.
  2. Move heavy items around the house.
  3. Clean.
  4. Yell. Either outside into the void or into your pillow.
  5. Hold a plank for a minute. “This flexes your core muscles, which does two important things,” says Tarr. “One thing it does is force diaphragmatic breathing, which sends a signal to your brain to stop producing stress hormones like cortisol. The second thing it does is it can help keep your spine, neck and back healthy if you sit at a desk all day.”
  6. Write an angry letter, just be sure to destroy it afterward.
  7. Cry. “Crying releases oxytocin and endorphins, neurotransmitters that can relieve pain and might make you feel like taking a nap,” explains Tarr. Which leads us to the final suggestion…
  8. Take a nap. Give your brain a chance to clean itself. Taking action of any type can help your body use the extra adrenaline it’s producing, which will keep you healthier in the long run.”

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