Completing the Stress Response Cycle
In this post I’m sharing two physical activity based solutions to manage stress. We’ll learn how to complete the stress response cycle and how to engage the rest and digest” state of our nervous system. I’ll do that by sharing two stories.
The first story is about two professional women. They both work in sales and travel throughout the valley meeting customers at different locations. One day, on their respective ways home both women experience a stressful event on the freeway. In those moments their bodies respond with a biological process called the stress response cycle. Their heart rates and blood pressure are elevated. Energy begins to course through their bodies. They are alert and ready to respond but the incident is quickly over when the other driver simply takes off.
Once they arrive home, both women attempt to relax but they take different approaches. Woman #1 tries to relax by grabbing her favorite snack and getting comfortable on the couch with her favorite movie. Even though she’s home, safe, and comfortable, she still feels the tension in her body and can’t help think about facing another frightening incident on the way home tomorrow.
Woman #2 attempt decides to put her relaxation efforts into 10 minutes of moderate to high intensity activity. You see, she is fortunate enough to be familiar with the Stress Response Cycle. She understands that immediately after that stressful experience on the freeway, a biological process with a beginning, middle, and an end was triggered and it needs to be completed.
This process worked perfectly to protect early humans from life-threatening events, like encountering a predator. In that scenario, if we were to run into a bear our bodies would ramp up to protect us, we’d exert a ton of energy escaping, and then back at the village we’d celebrate the fact that we survived with a little dance around the fire. That physical exertion and celebration works to complete and close the stress response cycle.
Modern life gives us plenty of opportunity to begin the stress cycle and not much opportunity to complete it. We experience the increase in heart rate and blood pressure, just like the encounter with the bear, only there’s no exertion of energy and no celebration at home. The cycle is still in the beginning phase. So after woman #2 spends 10 minutes with a cardio kickboxing class from YouTube she is able to release that pent up energy. Her physical tension is relieved. Feeling accomplished and with a lowered heart rate and blood pressure, she’s able to actually enjoy her favorite snack and movie and she lived happily ever after.
To close your stress response cycle after a stressful event simply engage in a short burst of moderate to high intensity physical activity. Any activity that allows you to engage your muscles and increase your heart rate will work perfectly. The examples are endless but weight lifting, shadow boxing, and trail running are my favorites. Consider your efforts on an intensity scale of 1 to 10. Work towards your 6 to 8 on that scale and work until you feel some relief. To completely close that stress response cycle, take a few moments after your activity to recognize that you’ve triumphed.
Inducing Relaxation via the Parasympathetic Nervous System
This 2nd story is about another professional woman. We’ll call her woman #3. Woman #3 likes to run. She runs most days of the week. She works around her busy schedule and ever runs when she travels for work. Woman #3 isn’t particularly athletic or competitive, but when she runs she feels strong, she’s in the zone. Despite her commitment to running, she doesn’t follow any special diet and doesn’t have weight loss goals. Running isn’t about changing her body or even her physical health. For woman #3, it’s about her mental health. She understands that rhythmic cardio promotes relaxation via the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Here’s how it works. Our autonomic nervous system regulates all of the involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system operates in two states, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. Our parasympathetic controls the body’s ability to relax and is also referred to as the “rest and digest” state. The sympathetic control’s the body’s “flight, fight, or freeze” response. An overactive sympathetic nervous system raises your heart rate, blood pressures and puts you on high alert but engaging the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect; it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure in the moment and in the long term lit lowers your resting heart rate, decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease, improves digestion, and improves sleep.
Engaging the parasympathetic state is beneficial for everyone but particularly for those of us challenged by anxiety or by an anxiety disorder like PTSD. Consistently living in the Sympathetic state over time can dysregulate our nervous systems, wreaking all kinds of havoc. Thankfully there is a simple solution in performing rhythmic cardiovascular activities (doing stuff that makes you breath hard). So when woman #3 runs each days she’s practicing self care, building stronger muscles, increasing her cardiovascular conditioning, but most importantly for her, she’s getting into her relaxation zone by engaging that parasympathetic state. When she’s back at home she’s better prepared for anything that comes her way and she lives happily ever after.
To engage your parasympathetic nervous system simply choose your favorite light to moderate rhythmic cardio-based activity like biking, hiking, aerobics, dancing, or walking. Consider your efforts on an intensity scale of 1 to 10. Work towards your 4 to 6 on that scale and allow yourself to get into a zone. For bonus benefits, head outdoors to a place that feels safe and offers access to nature.
Your challenge for this post: Be like woman number 2 and 3. After your next stressful event remember to complete the stress response cycle. Try one these 15 minute fitness routines. Make a plan to regularly engage your parasympathetic nervous system with rhythmic cardio activity. Then try these tips for engaging your parasympathetic state.
Understanding the stress response (2020) Harvard Health. Harvard Medical School. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.
Exercising to relax – harvard health publishing (2020) Harvard Health. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.