These days, we often experience a sense of ambient stress that appears disconnected from any single event. Picture this: I’m working an in-office corporate job. Every evening, I carry the stress of work home with me, dragging it into my conversations, relationships, and then back into work the next morning. This surrender to stress is a familiar story for many — and is scarcely something we feel equipped to healthily manage. It’s a subject worth pausing over since maintaining this chronic stress invites health complications that can put a damper on many aspects of life.

“The surrender to stress is a familiar story for many — and is scarcely something we feel equipped to healthily manage.”

“When living in a chronic state of stress and nervous dysregulation, anything that is unfamiliar can feel unsafe, even if it’s healthy,” says Katrina Leggins, LCSW, a licensed therapist and advocate for mental health and self-aware lifestyles.

Without mindful coping mechanisms, ending the loop of ongoing stress may feel impossible or overwhelming. That’s where work on stress cycles comes in. The term “stress cycle” was originally coined by medical researcher A.Z. Reznick in 1989. It began to enter contemporary discourse when sisters Dr. Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Dr. Amelia Nagoski, DMA, wrote the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” in 2020, developing the topic in light of our evolving cultural moment.

“Without mindful coping mechanisms, ending the loop of ongoing stress may feel impossible or overwhelming.”

So what is a stress cycle? Reznick identifies the stress cycle in four phases:

  • Resting ground state
  • Tension and strain phase
  • Response phase, which can be passive and/or active
  • Relief phase, which is both physiological and psychological

With chronic stress, we are stuck within the phases of tension and response, never quite making it through relief and back to a resting state. Moving through the entire stress cycle furnishes the body with resources to relax. Without that loop, the body continues to operate in a hyper-alert state that can do real damage to the mind and body over time. According to experts on the topic, the goal is to eliminate your reliance on ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, restoring them to their true function of protection within life-threatening situations.

Why should I mindfully release stress now?

While it might seem possible to continue pushing through your stress for a few hours, days, or months longer, Leggins notes that it’s essential to mindfully end stress cycles because of the potential of stressors escalating. Stress can become even more unmanageable as factors compound — and constant stress incites further emotional and physical changes in the body. 

“Constant stress incites further emotional and physical changes in the body.”

“When left unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to the development of other serious problems, such as heart diseases and strokes,” says Leggins. “In addition to the physical effects, emotional stress can make it difficult to focus, increase irritability, and contribute to mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. It’s vital not to ignore these signs and symptoms,” she adds.

Other common consequences of chronic stress are digestive issues, higher blood pressure, or a weakened immune system. Being mindfully proactive in completing these cycles means healing and recovering from past stressors, rather than re-animating them.

Who experiences incomplete stress cycles? 

In short, chronic stress is not particular to any kind of person since the inciting stressors can easily weave their way into daily life. Leggins explains that a chronic stressor is anything the body interprets as generating excessive distress, such as finances, job, family, relationships, grief, health issues, racism, or systematic oppression. None of us are untouched by stress so the question of if you remain within an incomplete stress cycle will depend on the number and intensity of factors operating within your life and your untrained response to them.

“None of us are untouched by stress.”

It is important to note that our position within a stress cycle isn’t always easy to recognize. It may take some work to identify this within yourself. “Some individuals are operating in chronic survival mode consciously and unconsciously,” says Leggins. Incomplete stress cycles can even disrupt our evaluation of how near and important stressors are, so we might feel that our stress is legitimate or has the function of protecting us.

Living or being raised in a society that normalizes stress makes it even harder to recognize and close these cycles.

How to recognize an incomplete stress cycle

It may sound simple but we don’t always stop to notice if our stress has completely passed or if it lingers, making the body and mind susceptible to the consequences of stored stress.

“One way to recognize if you’re within an incomplete cycle is if you find it difficult to allow yourself to relax and release.”

One way to recognize if you’re within an incomplete cycle is if you find it difficult to allow yourself to relax and release. When you are trapped in a stress response cycle, you may feel like slowing down equates to laziness. If you feel that it is difficult to slow down, Leggins cautions that, “calmness can feel temporary while in a cycle of chaos,” but working towards true rest is possible.

In “Burnout,” the Nagoski sisters suggest that to truly understand if you’ve recovered following a bout of stress, think about the quality of the recuperation and rest that you get. If you struggle to remember a rest period following a stressful incident, it probably didn’t happen. It’s OK though! The good news is that you can reverse this behavior.

For the Nagoski sisters, alleviating stress comes down to a few things including finding safety in affection (20-second hugs with a designated hug-buddy feature in the list), physical movement, and indulging in rest for physiological and mental release. Without these touchstones, it is hard to reach a resting ground and reenter the world free of past stress.

Five tips for effectively ending stress cycles

It’s not always easy to release the hold of stress, but since we know doing so is essential for a healthier lifestyle, Leggins shared with us her five most effective tips to gently and intentionally end stress cycles:

1. Implement a daily check-in

Incorporate customary check-ins at the beginning or end of the day, according to what works best for your routine. Taking a pause is a simple and effective practice that naturally helps us to assess our needs and better understand how we feel. This time can also be used to meditate or manifest with yourself, and invest in self-care. Spending just 5-10 minutes can have a big impact.

2. Take inventory of your space and companions

Spend time thinking about the state of your relationships and your current environment. This can allow you to better recognize what no longer serves you. Be gentle with yourself and take your time addressing these concerns. Consider gradually shifting your energy to more renewing and enlivening people and pursuits. Just thinking about your life in this way can begin to remove you from patterns of stress.

3. Do regular body scans 

Engage in body scans to help bring awareness and assist to any aches, pains, tension, or general discomfort you may be experiencing. Simply focusing our mind on our body can have a big impact on how we carry ourselves and our stressors. Consider regular body scans throughout the day while at work, running errands, or being social — you’ll be surprised what you notice since oftentimes we transfer stress to our body so as not to think about it.

4. Place your energy and attention on what you can control

Focus on what’s within your control. This may be easier said than done, but consider this: Maintaining a constant state of worry does not help in warding off difficult or unwanted situations, it actually places us within one. When we choose to focus on what we can control, we are more effective and feel more satisfaction in our personal and work lives.

5. Put your priorities down on paper

If you are stressing about many things, make a list and begin prioritizing them from what’s most important to what’s least important. Following this, create an action plan that includes steps to work through the stressors. Don’t be afraid to involve others in this process. Approaching our list of priorities calmly can allow us to see that there is enough time for everything (including rest!), if we prioritize based on our needs.

“Don’t think of these as things to add to your list, but as moments to re-engage yourself and check in.”

If you’re interested in more ways to tap into your body, Leggins also recommends somatic practices to influence a healthier relationship with stress. These can include physical activity/body movement (yoga, dancing, or mindful walking), creative expression (writing, art, or music), laughter (the deep belly kind), breathwork (deep slow breathing exercises like 4-7-8 breathing), and positive social interaction with others (reminding us that we are safe). 

Remember that starting with just one of these tips can have an impact on your chronic stress. Don’t think of these as things to add to your list, but as moments to re-engage yourself and check in. Rest, play, and meaningful connection are all essential human activities that are often neglected — allow yourself to leverage them to complete your stress cycles.

Amara Amaryah is a Jamaican poet and essayist, born in London. Her writings are interested in voice — often voicelessness — and reclamations of identity through definitions of home. Her work has been received, translated and read internationally. The Opposite of an Exodus is her debut pamphlet (Bad Betty Press, 2021).