April 24th, 2023

Completing the Stress Cycle

I tend to be a wordy person. Both my parents taught English, and a common mantra in our house growing up was “precision of language, say what you mean and mean what you say.” All of my dogs have been named after literature (specifically literary locations, for extra nerd street cred). My current and planned tattoos all have direct references to literary works. One of the first styles of therapy I really liked was Narrative Therapy, and then I grew up and got into the even nerdier version of Collaborative Language Therapy. So, words matter to me. Quite a lot. So every once in a while I’ll stumble on a turn of phrase or a different way of saying something, and I’ll get stuck in it. When doing work with emotional regulation and stress tolerance, Marsha Linehan would often talk about “leaning in” rather than avoiding the stress or strong emotion. John Gottman, famous couples therapy researcher, often writes about how healthy couples “turn towards” each other, especially in times of high stress. These are concepts I have talked about incessantly for years in therapy. They are such ubiquitous concepts they come up all the time. Without falling into hyperbole, I would say I talk about these ideas at least once a week, and realistically it would be closer to every day. But some of these concepts are hard at first. Turn towards your partner when you’re mad at them? Seems counterintuitive. Lean in to your stress response? Seems opposite of what your brain and body are telling you to do. So, when I came across a new way of summarizing this concept, it was a real eureka moment for my brain. Brain. Lightbulb. Happy fireworks. Let me share.

I am reading Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski. Like, for real reading it, cover to cover. I have been familiar with it since it came out in 2015, and have heard multiple presentations or continuing ed courses on the material over the years, but at most I had just skimmed it. For my brain, that’s usually enough to get the core concepts, especially for a book that uses research to back up what couples therapists had been talking about for years. But yeah, I’m reading it like word for word for the first time. And it is a delight. One of the things she talks about is the context of sex mattering. Easy summary is, being tickled can be seductive in a certain setting, but in another setting it can be terribly irritating or even inappropriate. The other core concept is the dual control model, which basically states turn-ons and turn-offs are connected but on totally different paths i.e. brakes and gas pedal each being unique paths to affecting a car’s speed. One of the main brakes for a lot of people is stress. Good ol’ daily, mundane stress. So, stress is like having the parking brake on, but still trying to drive normally. Doesn’t work well. Might be able to force it, but it won’t be awesome. That’s an oversimplified explanation, but the gist is good enough for our purposes. 

What happens, and how stress can compound for many of us, is we don’t complete the stress cycle. Ahh! Love it. It’s what turning towards your partner is all about, or what leaning in to a strong emotion accomplishes. Our brain processes stress as a perceived threat. We’re worried we will lose our job, or even easier example, we don’t like our boss. Our brains are wired to assess threats from predators. Sabretooth tiger? Run away! But after the activation of running away, our brain wants to come down. Our ancestors would take the scary threat, run to their village or encampment, gather up some hunters, go kill the tiger, then have a feast! A complete stress cycle, perceived threat, activation, and then safety!!!! I’m scared, I run away, I find support, I eliminate the threat, I feel relief, and potentially joy and gratitude to be alive. *Chef’s kiss* Such a good analogy. A perfect summary of how our brains are wired to work through stress. 

Bad news though, our modern contexts rarely allow for us to move through the stress cycle naturally. You don’t like your boss? Get a new job! But that’s easier said than done for us, especially if you have health care tied to a job, or are dependent on other benefits. Our brains go a little haywire looking for threats since we live in relative safety, and the things that often cause stress don’t have simple solutions. So we’re left with the only real option of intentional actions that complete the cycle for us, as mentioned earlier. We need an activity (oftentimes a physical movement of some sort), and we need to move into a place of safety. Both likely physical and mental safe space, if we’re being particular. This is why so much mental health advice from pop culture can boil down to “go to the gym” or “have you tried yoga?” But the crazy thing is if we use those things intentionally, they really help. They don’t fix things or solve problems, but reducing stress by completing the cycle gives our brain more resources to problem solve, to stave off burn out, and to connect in healthy ways. So, flee your threat or fight it, find your villagers for support, and get into your safe space. Let your brain complete the stress cycle to reduce your stress. Love it.