Breaking the Stress Cycle
When you’re in the thick of it - worrying about your child’s struggles and navigating the daily challenges of life - it’s easy to ignore your own stress. Many of us get so consumed in the coping that we don’t stop to notice how we feel… until we’re emotionally and physically depleted.
Stress may begin as a thought, but it triggers very real physiological changes in the body. When you sense a threat, your body activates the stress response, often referred to as fight-or-flight mode. It doesn’t matter if the danger is truly life threatening or not. If your body perceives danger – whether it’s a tiger preparing to pounce or a looming special education meeting – it will respond the same way. A cascade of chemicals and hormonal messengers such as cortisol and adrenaline trigger your survival system. Systems that aren’t necessary in the heat of the moment - such as immunity, digestion, and reproduction - are suppressed to save energy.
Let’s say the tiger finds something else to eat, or the special education meeting ends well. Once you know you’re safe, your body goes back to base-line. We weren’t designed to operate in a state of constant high alert. When we persistently activate the stress cycle, we get stuck in survival mode. Our bodies never get a chance to recover.
And as you have (no doubt) heard, chronic stress leads to all kinds of health concerns. Symptoms of chronic stress include anxiety, depression, fatigue, memory loss, weight gain, and sleep disruption. Additional problems, such as frequent illness, headaches, hormonal and digestive issues can also surface and wreak havoc on your health and wellbeing.
Address the Physiological Stress (Instead of the Stressors)
You might be trying to keep your chin up in the name of helping your child, but you feel like you’re barely holding it together. Some of us are addicted to stress. If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed and overscheduled, you might be unwittingly living in a pattern of chronic stress, feeding a mix of anxiety and misery.
Most of us focus on trying to solve more and do more about the stressors in our lives, without stopping to let our bodies know we’re actually safe. We can’t eliminate all the stressors. The struggles our kids face can be complicated. And sometimes scary. The days can be unpredictable. The to-do list is real…
But we can take steps to manage the stress itself. By taking a moment to stop each day, we can move through the physiology of the stress response and return to a place of safety and recovery.
Here are some ways to break the stress pattern:
A little physical activity can help you get through the stress cycle. Try walking, jumping, or dancing for 15 minutes to signal to your body that it’s safe.
The sensory pleasures of the outdoors - warm sunlight, fresh air, a soft breeze, chirping birds - can also help you change the channel and calm the stress cycle. Nature heals. Stand outside in the grass and take several deep breaths, or walk in a park for 30 minutes.
Affection and connection - such as a good 20-second hug - reminds your body that it’s safe to put down your shield. We were not created to fend for ourselves. Call or meet up with a friend. Ask for help. Smile at your barista. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, sharing positive emotions with other people, even exchanging positive “micro-moments”, build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.
Express Yourself Creatively
Journaling has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, reduce anxiety and diminish symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It’s not about writing perfect sentences. It’s about getting your thoughts and worries out of your head and into a safe place. Other forms of self-expression such as drawing, cooking and dancing can also turn around the stress response.
Try a Mini-Mindfulness Technique
Stop for a moment. Take a few deep breaths as you notice any sensations you find in your body: heat, cold, pain, tension. Observe your thoughts and feelings as if you were looking at yourself from afar. Consider what matters most in the moment and make an intentional decision about how to proceed. Maybe your decision is to respond to a challenging situation in a new and more skillful way. Maybe you choose to do nothing instead of reacting as you usually do. Hide in the closet if that’s where you need to be to make a shift. Taking a mindful break – even for just couple minutes – will help you shift towards a more peaceful approach.
Check out the Simple Self-Care Menu for more proven micro-actions that can help you break free from your stress patterns and recover your wellbeing. When you focus on calming yourself, you’ll have more energy, patience, and compassion as a parent – and enjoy your life a lot more.
Guides are for general information only. They are not intended to be and should not be relied on as a substitute for specific medical or health advice. While every effort is taken to ensure the information is accurate, Wild Peace makes no representations and gives no warranties that this information is correct, current, complete, reliable or suitable for any purpose. We disclaim all responsibility and liability for any direct or indirect loss, damage, cost or expense whatsoever in the use of or reliance upon this information. Consult a medical professional with any questions.