The Stress Avoidance Cycle

Stress, like the rest of life, happens in cycles.

When problems occur in cycles it makes them much easier to ignore, and harder to catch.

Be honest, have you ever known you had to make a decision that would let someone down, so you kept busy to avoid it?

It feels convenient when the things that bug you (the ones you know you need to change) aren’t staring in your face demanding your attention. Eventually though, they come back around and you have to do the thing you’ve been dreading.

This is how it feels to be in the cycle. It’s easy to put things off and avoid dealing with them, even though you know that you’ll eventually need to.

Add this bit of avoidance to a busy life, and you might even feel justified in putting off important things like your health, your exercise routing, significant conversations with your partner, or anything really, because they’re not right in front of you.

We’ve all been there before.

For example, I carry tension neck and shoulders and I used to think it was just part of my job (as though I had to sit at a desk for 40+ hours a week without a choice). I would use my work as an excuse to stay in this cycle of stress in my body before it would get bad enough to demand my attention. I’ll use this example to demonstrate the behaviour I’m talking about at each stage of the stress cycle.

Let’s see if this sounds familiar...

Phase 1 – Awareness

You know you’re not operating as well as you could be, but it’s not bad enough to divert your attention. You’re aware of the issue, but you keep going anyways.

In the back of my mind I knew it had been a while since I went to a yoga class. When I’d wake up, my neck and back would be stiff and it would take a few hours to loosen up.

Phase 2 – Pushing Through

This is when the problem starts to rear its head. Now the problem is in your face, but for whatever reason, you’re pushing past it hoping to hold out a little longer before you address it. This is where the excuses come in… I don’t have time, it’s expensive, I’m waiting until I have time off, or I’ll do it after the kids go to school…

For me, this would be back or shoulder pain starting to set into a specific spot. I could feel myself tightening up and my regular stretches weren’t enough to make a difference. My body felt uncomfortable on a daily basis. The pain was present, but not yet affecting my work.

Phase 3 – Knockout

Here’s where the issue demands your attention. At this stage, the problem is the loudest thing for you and it suddenly feels like the most important thing on your to do list. It’s got your attention and it’s taken you out of your regular routine so you can give it the focus it deserves.

This is when I’d wake up and be unable to move and it would be physically impossible for me to sit at my desk and focus on my work because I was in so much pain. I’d book an emergency appointment with my chiropractor and massage therapist, and I’d take the day off so I could have a hot bath and relax.

When you wait until Phase 3 to get knocked out by your problem (a broken bone, a house fire, a heart attack, getting fired, your spouse leaving) you go through extra unnecessary pain. Also, because you waited so long, you’d have more work to do than if you’d solved the problem sooner.

If you were to fix the problem at this phase (really get to the root and fix it) you’d have to make bigger changes than you would have in Phase 1 or 2, because the problem has worsened and created other issues.

Phase 4 – Dormant

Then the problem would be dormant for a while. Ahh, reprieve. It would feel so sweet, but it wouldn’t last long. This is where-- if there wasn’t a real, lasting change made at the root of the problem (did you take the time for that?), Phase 4 cycles back into Phase 1 and you repeat the process again.

Addressing the issue with a chiropractor and massage therapist would stop the pain for a while. But it was only a temporary solution. Without addressing the root of the issue (working long hours at an uncomfortable desk and not moving my body enough) I’d cycle back to Phase 3 within a month. Rinse. Repeat.

Sometimes you get lucky and can cycle between Phases 1 and 2 without having to actually confront the problem. While you might not reach Phase 3 and get knocked off track, you’re certainly not operating at a high level across the board in your life. This alone should be your wake-up call.

When you resist a problem in one area, you don’t just resist the pain, you gradually build resistance toward life. 

Soon the things you love don’t feel as sweet. You stop doing the things you used to and you create a thick callus of resistance (physically and emotionally) that keeps you playing small in your life.

Getting Off The Cycle

One of the hardest parts of this stress cycle is recognizing that it’s happening to you in the first place. When you live amongst other people who are cycling in the same way as you, it’s hard to pick out your own behaviour because you would need to up-level to even see what’s going on.

When you wait to be knocked out in Phase 3, you’re forced to feel everything you’ve been pushing down in the months or years before. In your resistance, you’ve shown life that it needs to raise its voice to get your attention. In response, life has to send you something big enough to get you to wake up and realize you’re not taking care of yourself.

This is how you get into trouble with your health.

This is how relationships erode.

This is how you lose touch with yourself and the things you love.

This is how you wake up one day and realize you barely recognize the life you’re living. (Who made all these choices? How did I end up here?)

The thing is, it doesn't have to be like this. It’s up to you to make the choice. Are you going to stay stuck in this stress cycle waiting for life to blow up in your face? Or do you want to be proactive and step off the cycle so you can start thriving and trending in the direction you want your life to go?

Whether you wait for the alarm bells to go off and knock you out in Phase 3, or whether you take action before things get too serious – the choice is yours.

If you’re serious about building stress resilience so you can get off the stress cycle before being knocked out, join the Simple Stress Reduction Facebook group and let us support you in taking action to break the stress cycle in your life.

Selina Rose
A holistic nutritionist, writer, non-granola yogi, and coach dedicated to helping you find sustainability in your health so you can play full-out in life (whatever that looks like for you).
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Author: Selina Rose

A holistic nutritionist, writer, non-granola yogi, and coach dedicated to helping you find sustainability in your health so you can play full-out in life (whatever that looks like for you).