5 Simple steps to break free from a chronic stress cycle

Researchers have found different brain states associated with different levels of stress, and there’s also a freeze response to extreme stress.

Researchers have found different brain states associated with different levels of stress, and there’s also a freeze response to extreme stress.

Published Apr 3, 2024


Stress is how your body reacts when faced with a challenge or demand.

Even as you read this, your body is experiencing some level of stress. Whether you’re feeling relaxed or tense, your body is experiencing a certain level of stress. However, understanding stress and its causes can make it less intimidating.

Stress is a common part of life, but understanding it can make it less scary. Linnea Passaler, a health professional and author, has written a book called Heal Your Nervous System: The 5-Stage Plan to Reverse Nervous System Dysregulation, which talks about stress.

Speaking to Goop Wellness about how to reverse stress, Passaler, brings forward that researchers have found different brain states associated with different levels of stress, and there’s also a freeze response to extreme stress.

This new model of stress alertness is designed to help people manage stress better.

“Imagine your stress response as an elevator, moving through different levels of alertness as you deal with life’s ups and downs. Each ‘floor’ represents a different state of your body and mind, from deep relaxation at the bottom to full alertness at the top.

“At the ground level, the blue state, you’re deeply relaxed, like during meditation or deep sleep.”

The green state:

Moving up to the green state, you're focused and at ease, in your 'flow' state. It's like being in the zone, allowing you to be engaged in an activity while feeling at ease.

The yellow state:

The yellow state is like being on a mental treadmill, feeling stressed and overloaded. At the top, the red state, you're on full alert, ready to fight or run away. It's like being on a mental treadmill, with racing thoughts and increased worry.

This state can lead to decreased performance and frustration.

The red state:

In this state, your senses are heightened and you’re more alert than ever, making it easier for you to react quickly and effectively to the threat at hand.

It’s your body’s response mechanism to a full-blown threat. In the red state, your heart beats faster, pumping more blood to your muscles and organs, and your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen into your system.

The purple state:

Imagine the purple state as an emergency stop button in the elevator. Both fight and flight modes are reactions to threats.

Freezing is an active response that allows you to “stop, look, and listen” and prepares you to fight or flee, whereas tonic immobility is a passive response, resembling a state of physical and mental paralysis.

Each level of the elevator represents a different way your body and mind react to stress. Understanding these levels can help you recognize how stress is affecting you and find ways to manage it better.

Stress gets a bad rap, but it’s not always a problem. Scientific research indicates that low to moderate stress can enhance resilience.

The ability to navigate your states can be the difference between a resilient response to stress and a debilitating one, explained Passaler.

Below is a step-by-step guide to reducing your stress:

Find a quiet moment

Start by setting aside some uninterrupted time for yourself. Choose a moment when you’re alone and can afford to relax and focus on yourself. Make sure the environment is calm and quiet.

Activate your states

Think back to a time when you felt really calm and relaxed, like on a peaceful day at the beach. That’s the green state – feeling open and attentive. Now, remember a mildly stressful situation, like when you had to give a speech.

Focus on the emotions and sensations that come up. That’s the yellow or red state – feeling a little stressed out. By recalling these experiences, you can understand how your body and mind react to different situations. It’s like unlocking the secret code to your stress levels.

Journal your observations

Pay close attention to how your body feels and reacts in each state.

What physical sensations do you notice? What emotions are tied to each state?

Write down your observations in your journal. Your notes should be personal and meaningful to you.

Return to calm

Exploring these states might stir up intense feelings, especially when you’re tapping into the higher-stress states.

If you find it hard to come back to a more relaxed state after the exercise, take a few moments to engage in a calming activity, such as a guided relaxation exercise, going for a gentle walk, having a comforting chat with a friend, or losing yourself in a piece of soothing music.

5-4-3-2-1 method

Use this method to help you practise mindfulness. Slow your breathing and identify the following for each of your senses:

∎ 5 things you see

∎ 4 things you can touch around you

∎ 3 things you can hear

∎ 2 things you can smell

∎ 1 thing you can taste

Cape Times

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wellnessmental health