What’s the Difference between Stressors and Your Stress Cycle?

“Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress,” (which are called stressors). To deal with your stress, “you have to complete the [stress] cycle.” 

This is the profound main point in the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2020) written by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. The authors make a clear distinction between stressors and stressStressors refer to the vast sea of threats we perceive on the daily, whereas stress refers to the way the human mind and body respond to those threats.

The authors teach how to complete the stress cycle, that is, how to assist the mind and body to return to a state of rest following a perceived threat. They highlight that, “Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor, doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself.” In other words, just because you solve the problem, doesn’t mean your mind and body relax. 

Likewise, if a particular stressor cannot be fixed or removed, it doesn’t mean we must remain a slave to a never-ending internal experience of stress. Just because you can’t solve the problem, doesn’t mean your mind and body can’t relax.

This is an empowering truth because it claims we can BE okay even if our circumstances ARE NOT okay. To capitalize on this finding, you can:

  1. Recognize the difference between stressors and your internal stress cycle, and
  2. Learn how to facilitate movement through your stress cycle so your mind and body can return to a state of rest. 

Methods to complete the stress cycle include physical activity, deep breathing, positive social interaction, genuine laughter, prolonged affection, a big cry, and creative expression.

Notice these methods to complete the cycle have nothing to do with the resolution of the stressors that triggered the stress symptoms in the first place. That’s the beauty! We are free to work toward feeling better even if our circumstances continue to be threatening or exasperating.

The book is worth a read if you’d like to know more about the impact of and recovery from stressors and stress for women within a patriarchal context. For the rest of this article, I’m going to shift to focus on how these psychological findings can help us in our spiritual life. The Nagoski sisters do not write from a Christian perspective, but the information they present is valuable in understanding God’s power and presence when we are suffering.

Those of us who try to align our thoughts and actions with the instructions in the Bible, can at times, feel duped by what is written. What I mean is, we read a passage that gives an instruction that seems to promise a particular outcome, but when we follow the instruction, the promised outcome seems to elude us. An experience I find super frustrating and disorienting.

An example of this is Philippians 4:6-7. “Do not be anxious in anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The instruction is, rather than be anxious, interact with God about everything. The promised outcome is peace. The only problem is, sometimes when we talk to God about all the stressors in our life, we continue to feel stressed out. Where’s the peace? Sometimes it seems like prayer just doesn’t work. It doesn’t change our stressors, or make us feel any better. 

So, what’s going on and how can we change it?

Let’s look at an example.

Jasper is struggling. He can’t sleep, his chest feels tight all the time, and he can’t concentrate at work. His anxiety has heightened in the past three months because his wife told him she is not happy in their marriage. He did not see this coming. He thought he was a good husband, but his view of himself and their marriage got rocked. Jasper doesn’t know if his wife is going to stay with him or not, all he knows for sure is that his future is uncertain.

The stressors: Some of the stressors in this example are his wife’s unhappiness, the paradigm shift regarding the stability of their marriage, and the uncertainty about the future.

When Jasper prays about the stressors, he says things like, “Lord, I don’t know what to do. My wife might leave me. How could she do this? What did I do wrong? Please help us work this out. Please make me a better husband or change her heart toward me.”

Prayers about the stressors tend to focus on the details of the circumstance and how to fix them. In my observance, this is where most people spend the majority of time in prayer.

The stress: The stress in this example is evidenced in Jasper’s body and mind. He can’t sleep, his chest is tight, and his mental acuity has diminished.

When Jasper prays about the stress he expresses things like, “Jesus, I can’t keep going like this. I need to sleep. I feel like I can’t breathe. I’m exhausted. Please help me.”

Prayers about the stress tend to focus on the symptoms of the internal experience and requests to make those symptoms decrease or stop. Prayers about the stress require self-awareness. A person needs to be able to notice what is going on internally, acknowledge it, and name it, in order to talk to God about it. The requirement of self-awareness and the vulnerability inherent in it, makes this type of prayer more difficult for many people. 

In noticing these patterns, I intend no evaluation of godliness. One type of prayer is not more godly than the other. El Shama, the God who hears, hears our prayers regardless of whether they are focused on stressors or the stress cycle. But, WE are not impacted the same way when we pray about the stressors and the stress cycle.

The Impact of Stressor Prayers and Stress Prayers

Praying about the stressors does two things. First, it keeps us focused on the stressors, and second, it causes us to look for evidence of God’s presence and power in His response to the stressors

As we recount the stressors in prayer – ie. replay all the pieces we can’t control, or meditate on what we should control if we could just figure out what to do – we release the stress hormone responsible for our stress cycle. This hormone, called cortisol, is great for survival in a crisis, but not so helpful in a contemplative moment of prayer. 

Often, we pray, hoping for a fix for the stressors, while we actively increase our body’s stress response. Sadly, this leads to the conclusion that prayer doesn’t work. 

Praying about stressors is natural. They are bothersome, so of course we want to talk to God about them. But if we want to avoid fueling a loop of chronic stress while we pray, we need to be wise with this type of prayer. We need an outlet to express what worries us, but it’s important to realize that camping there – even if it’s in prayer – can heighten our internal experience of stress.

Praying about the stress cycle also does two things. First, it causes us to notice what’s going on in our body and mind. This acknowledgment, provided it is non-judgmental, allows us to tune into our physical experience and consider an appropriate physical response. Second, it acknowledges God’s power and presence in this reflective process, which spurs production of a different cortisol-inhibiting chemical in our brain.

Given the findings in Burnout, the impact of prayer which addresses the stress cycle is substantial. It sets us up to participate in the list of behaviours proven to return our mind and body to rest; that is, prayer about the stress cycle sets us up to complete the stress cycleWhen we do so, we can experience BEING okay, even if our circumstances are not okay. Likewise, we can experience God who is with us, for us, and cares about us, even if our stressors continue to exist. This gives us the gift of prayer ‘working’, even if we continue to face struggles and trials in life.

Philippians 4:6-7 gives permission to talk to God about anything, and promises peace as a guard for our heart and mind when we do. To experience this peace, we can lift up our stressors and our stress cycle to God, trusting that He who made us with the capacity to complete the stress cycle, is also with us and empowering us while we do.

References:

Nagoski, E. Nagoski, A. (2019). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. New York: Ballantine Books.

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