The stress response cycle is your body’s natural response to stress. It’s broken into three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Learning how to work through each stage can help you alleviate stress.

Stress is the physical and mental response to an external trigger. When this happens, your body goes through something called the stress response cycle. It’s broken down into three stages:

  • alarm
  • resistance
  • exhaustion

Here’s a look at what happens during each stage, plus simple and effective ways to break free of the cycle.

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Photography by Victor Torres/Stocksy United

Stress isn’t just an emotion. When you experience an external stressor, it triggers a series of complex reactions in the body. This is known as the stress response cycle.

The cycle is natural and happens automatically. It should only last for a short period before you recover and continue with business as usual. But, when stress is constant — or you never give yourself time to recover — the cycle can persist and continue indefinitely.

Part of those complex reactions is an increase in inflammation in the body, and a reduction of how well the immune system works to prevent or fight disease. Chronic stress can lead to serious, long-term health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and immune system problems. It also contributes to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression.

That’s why it’s critical to understand the stress-response cycle and how to break free from its grip!

The stress cycle consists of three stages:

  • alarm
  • resistance
  • exhaustion

Here’s the deets on each.


When you happen upon a stressor — like danger or a deadline — your body’s natural reaction is to go into survival mode. This is the alarm stage.

The alarm stage is characterized by the fight or flight response, a physiological occurrence that tells your body how to react when faced with a dangerous situation.

During the alarm stage, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. Cortisol is a hormone that increases blood sugar levels, provides energy to muscles, and suppresses digestion. Adrenaline (aka epinephrine) increases heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.

Basically, you’re ready to run or rumble!


Once the initial threat subsides, the parasympathetic nervous system reduces the stress response. Cortisol levels drop and blood pressure and heart rate normalize. Although the body begins to recover, it remains on alert until the stressful event is no longer an issue.

But if it’s a chronic stressor (e.g. a demanding job or an unhappy relationship), your body remains in a state of heightened alert and stress hormones remain high.

Your body makes adjustments to cope with the stress. This can lead to poor sleep, poor concentration, and irritability.


If the stress remains and you can’t complete the stress cycle, the body repeats the stress response. This can lead to prolonged and chronic stress. Eventually, it can cause long-term health issues like:

The key to breaking free from the stress cycle is to identify healthy coping mechanisms and add them into your life.

Stress can be scary. The good news is that there are lots of effective ways to complete the stress response cycle, avoid chronic stress, and protect your health. Here are some tips to help you break free from the stress cycle.


A good night’s sleep is essential for managing stress. When you’re well-rested, you’re better able to handle stressful situations. Also, good sleep helps reduce the physical effects of stress, like inflammation.

Aim for 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye per night and try to go to bed at a regular time.

If you have trouble drifting off, try elevating your sleep hygiene. In other words, create an environment that’s conducive to sleep with a bedroom that’s dark, quiet, and cool. And, disconnect from electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

Set limits

Grab a pen and paper and make a list of your top priorities. Then, say no to anything that doesn’t fall into one of those categories. It’ll help you focus on what’s important and avoid taking on too much.

For work-related projects, discuss your responsibilities with your boss and make sure you’re on the same page. They can help you delegate tasks to other members of the team or adjust your workload.

When it comes to personal commitments — like social events or volunteer work — only say yes if you have the time and energy. It’s okay to put yourself first!

Physical affection

Physical touch can calm you and change how you handle stress. Research suggests that physical comfort from someone you care about communicates that everything is okay and you’re safe. It can support mental and physical health and reduce fear and stress responses.

Hugs trigger oxytocin release, which is sometimes called the cuddle or love hormone. This hormone can help reduce anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and slows the heart rate. It also improves sleep quality, digestion, and immunity.

So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for a hug from a loved one, pet your dog or cat, or try some self-massage.

Release emotions

It’s crucial to release your emotions healthily. When you keep everything bottled up, it can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like overeating, drinking alcohol, or lashing out.

Find an outlet that works for you. Maybe that means talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or venting to a therapist. Some peeps find that channeling their emotions into a creative outlet, like painting, drawing, writing, or cooking, can help them feel better.

Deep breathing

When you’re feeling stressed, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This type of breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

Deep, diaphragmatic breathing helps you calm down by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation. Try this simple breathing exercise:

  • inhale for 4 counts
  • hold your breath for 7 counts
  • exhale for 8 counts

You can do this exercise anywhere, at any time. The longer you do it, the more relaxed you’ll feel.

You can also try tai chi, qi gong, or yoga. These mind-body practices help you focus on your breath and connect with your body, which can lead to a sense of calm.

If you feel consistently stressed, you may want to talk to a mental health care provider. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing:

  • irritability
  • short temper
  • memory issues
  • sleep problems
  • difficulty concentrating

They can suggest lifestyle changes and recommend medication or therapy to help you feel better.

Breaking free from the stress cycle takes time and effort. But, it’s worth it to feel calmer and more in control of your health and well-being.

Start by managing your sleep, setting limits, releasing emotions, and practicing deep breathing.

And, if you’re still feeling overwhelmed or stressed, talk to your doctor. They can help you find the resources and strategies you need to feel better.