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Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle

CAYA-cover-compressedAlthough it is a very important topic, I seldom write about intimacy (aka s.e.x.) here…or anywhere.

It is a very personal thing to write about, or talk about, or even think about.

But I read about it more these days, in the sense of trying to figure out answers to questions I have and to find a barometer for where I “fit” in the spectrum of intimate interests and needs.

I mention this because recently I checked out a book from the local library called “Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life,” by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Now I should preface this by saying that books with titles like this one often make me feel irritable. This is because they make me uncomfortable. And the last thing I want to do late at night (which is usually when I have time for “free reading” that is not related to required work) is read something that makes me feel uncomfortable.

But since John Grisham isn’t likely to have the answers to the questions I have in this particular area, I typically try to soldier on and get through whatever the book of the week happens to be.

In this particular book’s case, I’m glad I chose to stick with it, because I may have finally discovered one of the biggest missing pieces that continues to hold me back in certain areas of my ongoing recovery journey.

This is called “completing the cycle.”

To illustrate how it works, Dr. Nagoski gives an example from the animal world (see why I’m glad I stuck with it?).

To summarize –

Suppose you are a deer. You are placidly enjoying your lunch when suddenly a hungry lion decides you look like its lunch. You sound the alarm and start running very, very fast.

Here, there are two potential outcomes. Outcome A: you don’t escape and the lion enjoys its lunch very much. Outcome B: you do escape.

Let’s say you do escape. Whew.

This is great news, of course. But it is what you do next that can determine how that close call affects your life in the future.

Most human beings tend to move right away to take care of the issue causing the stress (this is called “dealing with the stressor” – in this particular scenario it would be outrunning the lion). When we are done with that task, we tell ourselves very grown-up-sounding unhelpful things like, “well, that is dealt with now so you can just get over it and move on.”

And then we wonder why we can’t sleep for nights or weeks or we turn to alcohol or food or other numbing behaviors to help us rest.

Animals, on the other hand, do things very differently. And what they do usually tends to work much better. 

Dr. Nagoski relates:

If an animal survives such an intense threat to its life, then it does an extraordinary thing: It shakes. It trembles, paws vibrating in the air. It heaves a great big sigh. And then it gets up, shakes itself off, and trots away.

What’s happening here is that freeze has interrupted the GO! stress response of fight or flight, leaving all that adrenaline-mediated stress to go stale inside the animal’s body. When the animal shakes and shudders and sighs, its body is releasing the brake, completing the activation process triggered by fight/flight, and purging the residue. Completing the cycle. It’s called “self-paced termination.”

So here, what I have learned is that all stress is about survival to my limbic brain, even if there are no hungry lions in sight.

So if I get stressed out and survive it (which tends to be most of the time), I must then deal with not just the stressor but the residue from the stress itself. Only after I’ve done both can I move forward again with any hope of health and/or productivity.

Dr. Nagoski lists a number of activities that can help work off the stress residue: movement, screaming, arts and crafts, meditation, massage, hugs, self-grooming (like coloring your hair or nails).

But if I make the mistake of thinking “handling the stressor” (outrunning the lion) is the same as “handling the stress” itself, my to-do list may look increasingly tidy, but the growing pile of stress residue inside me is going to mess with everything else in my life until it gets let out – including my relationships.

This is where a big missing piece has been hiding for me. In the past, when I didn’t like or respect myself much, I frequently made poor friendship and romantic choices, as well as certain intensely poor career and hobby choices.

As I’ve recovered and gotten stronger and healthier and more self-respecting over the years, I’ve taken steps to sever each one of those connections in turn. And I’ve made better choices since then.

But I didn’t ever complete the cycle, which is what would allow me to trust myself in my choices and in those new relationships and situations.

In my limbic brain, what this feels like is that I’m still not totally safe with myself, from myself, or with these new people or in these new situations I’ve selected for myself. In other words, a part of me is still living in my past, where I’m out of the woods but yet not quite out of the woods, if that makes any sense.

And I won’t be safe in truth until all that stress residue piled up inside me is let out and diffused in full.

So I’ve been working on this.

For me, first meditation and then walking is what seems most helpful to help me let all that stress residue out at last.

Here is an example of how this is working for me:

Several years ago, I had a boyfriend who often behaved in ways that scared me. I put up with it because of the aforementioned reasons of low self-esteem. Finally I got healthier and I ended the relationship. But in my limbic brain I am still stuck there – fresh out of the relationship (so I’ve dealt with the stressor) yet still feeling all the built-up stress around the situation (because I haven’t dealt with the stress itself yet).

So this morning I meditated on this relationship. I visualized how I got into it, what it was like in it, how I got out of it, and then….I visualized myself NOW. Now, when I am SAFE. I let myself really feel that safety. My escape worked. I wasn’t anyone’s lunch. I am okay. I am safe, now, in this present day, in my daily life. Then, to move the stress residue out of my body, I went for a vigorous walk. After all that, I felt much better in every possible way.

One down, many more to go.

But this is working. It is really, really working. And I am very, very glad.

Today’s Takeaway: Have you ever found your questions – even questions you didn’t even realize you still had – answered in the darnedest of places by the oddest of mentors? Do you resonate at all with Dr. Nagoski’s concept of “completing the cycle?” If so, how do you think it might help you heal from not particular stressors, but the overall stress that you’ve experienced to date in your life?

Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2020
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