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Stuck in a Stress Tunnel?

Often, time in a therapy session is spent working on the goal of emotion identification. Clinicians work with clients to help them name their emotion and understand the information the emotion may be providing. Feeling overwhelmed, worried and lonely can be like a warning light in a car; lighting up when a minor adjustment needs to be made to avoid a malfunction. Feeling happy, content, and satisfied can let us know that we are making good choices and that an action is helpful for our overall wellbeing.

Why do clinicians spend so much time in session working to name emotions and understand their origin? The authors of the book, “BURNOUT: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” explain that emotions are like tunnels; if a person goes all the way through the tunnel, they get to the light at the end. However, when a person is unable to name, recognize, and work through an emotional tunnel, emotional exhaustion can occur.

One emotion that is prevalent in therapeutic work is feeling “stressed.” Often clients can name the stressor (parenting toddlers, demanding work, financial concerns) but feel trapped in an endless cycle of stress activation. Our bodies are designed to activate a physically demanding response to perceived threat in order to protect us. The stress response impacts numerous systems in our body from our cardiovascular system to our digestive system. Our heart beats faster, and our blood moves quickly through our veins to activate muscles to run. Our digestive system shuts down to conserve energy to fight or run.

However, in today’s society, often the “appropriate” fight or flight response to a stressor is socially looked down on (we can’t exactly fight our co-worker or run away during a presentation). Therefore, it is important to consider what happens when a perceived threat is removed, but the stress cycle has not been completed. The stress cycle is complete when the body perceives safety. Our bodies are not designed to recognize the co-worker leaving the meeting as reaching safety. We have to let our bodies know in a physical way that the perceived threat is no longer an active concern. Without completing the stress cycle, our bodies are stuck in a stress tunnel. Just telling our body that it is safe is not enough to complete the cycle, the physiological shift has to occur to move completely through the tunnel.

If you are noting stress as a prevalent emotion in your life; consider the following physical ways to not only identify stress but allow your body to complete the stress cycle:

1. Physical movement – our bodies complete the stress cycle when they move. Getting active and sweaty even just 20 minutes most days a week lets our body work through the physical process needed to release the stress hormones that were activated in our day.

2. Deep breathing – although not as effective as physical movement, deep breathing does alert the body that it is safe and can help you walk to the end of the stress tunnel.

3. Crying – letting tears flow can help your body complete the stress cycle and alert the body that you are now safe and no longer in danger.

If you’d like to receive more support on emotion identification or identifying active ways to cope with stress, please reach out to KS Services for individual therapy. We are happy to support you on your journey to wellness.

Licensed Professional Counselor


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