The Stress Response Cycle

by | Stress, Vicarious Trauma, Work

Let’s talk about closing open browser tabs.

Every time we encounter something stressful, we begin a stress response cycle. We open a new tab in our brain’s browser, and it has to go through a few processes before we can close it.

turned-on MacBook Pro

If it doesn’t go through these processes, the tab stays open. We might ignore it, go focus on something else, but it’s there taking up resources.

If we keep opening tabs and then not closing them, the capacity we have to manage the things we want to focus on gets smaller and smaller until it starts impacting our day to day life.

Old tabs might demand the be seen again. We might feel like everything takes double the effort. We might start dreaming of tabs we thought we’d closed. A process that would normally be easy to run becomes a giant ordeal and we might find ourselves getting overwhelmed at what is normally a tiny hiccup.

This is one of the things that leads to burnout.

When these tabs are traumatic experiences, this is what can lead to traumatic injury.

Meet the Stress Response Cycle

1) The Gut reaction.

There it is again, that funny feeling

Our mind decides whether the triggering event is a threat or not.

2) The Physical Response

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy

There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti

He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready

3) Internalisation and incubation

This can go one of two ways – it can be open and curious, or it can

be closed and re-enforce our existing thoughts and feelings.

We can deliberately act in this space, or we can default to whatever coping skills we have on board, for better or for worse.

This is the point where a tab will either remain open, or be closed.

4) Homeostasis

Our bodies always want to return to a familiar space of balance. It doesn’t mean a good one, it means the one that’s most familiar to us.

How do we close open tabs?

1. Physical Activity

30 seconds of wriggling, jiggling, jumping, shaking, dancing. Whatever makes your brain happy and gets your body moving.

2. Breathing

Long, slow, deep breaths into your lower belly, hold briefly, long slow breath out.

3.Social Interaction

A brief check in with a mate, a colleague, or even a pet. Doesn’t have to be a conversation about the stress itself.

a person sitting on a couch with a laptop

4. Affection

Obviously with enthusiastic consent, hug someone and hold it until you relax. If you pay attention, you can often feel that moment of relaxation come over you.

Alternatively, give someone a genuine compliment about something you appreciate about them. Make it an action they’ve done or a trait they have.

5. Laughter

There’s a reason we love dumb shit on the internet.

6. Tears

Rustle up a feeling, do what you have to do, find a spot where you won’t be disturbed, and have an ugly cry about it.

person dipping paintbrush on paint

7. Creativity

Working with your hands does great things for the nervous system. This works a treat if it’s something that you don’t feel pressure about being good. Colouring, crochet, knitting, drawing are all great options, but you do you!

About the Author

Alicia Louise she/they Alicia is a founder of Reflex, a mental health educator, and a lived-experience advocate. She has a special interest in the intersection of mental health and community care. In her down time, she enjoys art, music, and design.

About Reflex

This article was brought to you by Reflex Response Services, a trauma counselling and support charity based in Newcastle, Australia.

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