How to Break Free from a Chronic Stress Cycle

Written by: Linnea Passaler, DMD


Published on: March 14, 2024

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Linnea Passaler, DMD, is a health professional and author. Her latest book, Heal Your Nervous System: The 5-Stage Plan to Reverse Nervous System Dysregulation, is out now and excerpted below.

Stress is how your nervous system responds to challenge or demand. Your body is always in some state of stress arousal. Even right now, as you read this excerpt, your body is experiencing a certain level of stress. Maybe you’re relaxed, breathing deeply and feeling at ease in your body. Maybe you’re feeling tense and frantically trying to get through to the end. If you had an accurate map of different levels of stress arousal, it would be much easier to recognize your current level of stress and see how it’s shaping your present-moment experience.

Stress researchers have documented various brain states associated with different levels of stress arousal. Research from Elissa Epel and her team at the University of California, San Francisco summarized much of this research on brain states, describing four distinct levels of arousal. Other research has verified a different type of physiological response to extreme stress, the freeze response, which is associated with a part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray. The research team at Heal Your Nervous System and I have incorporated this data into a new model of stress alertness, specifically designed to support your work with dysregulation: The Alertness Elevator.


Imagine your stress response as an elevator, moving through varying arousal levels as you respond to life’s circumstances. Each “floor” represents a different state of arousal of the body and mind, from deep rest on the ground floor to high alert on the top floor.


At ground level is the blue state, a state of deep rest. Here your body and mind are in deep relaxation mode. This happens during activities such as meditation or deep sleep, where your body can regenerate cells and restore itself. This state is marked by minimal stress levels, increased parasympathetic activity—the “rest-and-digest” mode of your nervous system—and enhanced cellular health, promoting relaxation and restoration.


Moving up with the elevator, you enter the green state. It’s your “flow” state—where you are focused and relaxed and your body is at ease. This state allows you to be engaged in an activity while maintaining a sense of relaxation. Stress levels are high enough for you to stay focused and low enough that you can stay simultaneously relaxed. Your heart rate and respiration support active engagement in the task at hand, and attention is heightened. It’s a state with a balance of activity in the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, which helps rev you up, and the parasympathetic branch, which helps cool you down.


Riding up you reach the yellow state, a state of alertness and mental exertion, where your mind and body experience a moderate level of stress. This state is characterized by a heightened mental load that feels like your mind is on a nonstop treadmill. It’s a state of cognitive overload, where your thoughts may race, often consumed by worry, self-criticism, or feelings of shame. This state is a result of the extra mental effort needed to complete a task, which often leads to decreased performance and increased frustration. You might notice your heart beating faster and your muscles tensing up, signs that your body’s stress response is in an activated, persistent mode.


Reaching the top, you find the red state, a state of acute stress. Here, you are on full alert, ready to either fight or run away. It’s your body’s response mechanism to a full-blown threat. In the red state, your heart beats faster, pumping more blood to your muscles and organs, and your breathing speeds up to get more oxygen into your system. Your body increases your blood glucose levels, giving you an energy boost. At the same time, more blood is drawn away from your gut and toward your muscles, readying you for action. In this state, your senses are heightened and you’re more alert than ever, making it easier for you to react quickly and effectively to the threat at hand. It’s your body’s way of giving you the best chance possible of handling the situation.


Imagine the purple state as an emergency stop button in the elevator. It’s like hitting pause when you sense extreme danger, making your body freeze, essentially becoming immobile. When the level of threat or danger increases significantly, your body switches to a defensive mode, like freezing or tonic immobility (passing out). In this state, your heart is slowed and you feel like you can’t move. Both freezing and tonic immobility are reactions to threats. Freezing is an active response that allows you to “stop, look, and listen” and prepares you to fight or flee, whereas tonic immobility is a passive response, resembling a state of physical and mental paralysis.


Stress gets a bad rap, but it’s not always a problem. Scientific research indicates that low to moderate stress can enhance resilience. If your nervous system is regulated and you encounter a stressful situation, you will transition through the red and yellow states and return flexibly to the green and blue states when the stressor disappears. Stress like this, even though it may feel very intense when you’re in the red or yellow state, is not a problem and can even be beneficial for your health and growth.

Spending an appropriate amount of time in the red and yellow states, where your body’s defenses are mobilized, can teach your body and brain to handle stress better in the future. And when the stressor is removed and you transition back to the green and blue states, your body gets a chance to recover and rejuvenate. This cycle of adaptation is a key part of building resilience.

However, if you’re stuck in a constant loop of red and yellow states, the story changes. Chronic, repeated stressors can damage your body and mind and increase your risk of disease. In chronically stressed individuals, research has shown that simply anticipating a stressful event can cause significant stress. So, it’s not just the stressful event itself that causes the problem, but even the anticipation of it triggers stress responses and can lead to health issues.

Over time, chronic stress may change your nervous system’s wiring, contributing to a spiral that is increasingly difficult to break free from. To end this painful cycle, you must learn to manage your “alertness elevator.” You need to be able to return to the green and blue states as your baseline for recovery. There’s nothing wrong with shifting through the red and yellow states in demanding situations, but it’s crucial to give your body and mind enough time back in the green and blue states to recover. The ability to navigate your states can be the difference between a resilient response to stress and a debilitating one.


Here’s a step-by-step guide to creating your alertness elevator map.

  1. Find a quiet moment: Start by setting aside some uninterrupted time for yourself. Choose a moment when you’re alone and can afford to relax and focus on yourself. Make sure the environment is calm and quiet.
  2. Activate your states: Except for the purple state, try to recall a past experience or situation that typically brings you to each of the alertness elevator states: blue, green, yellow, red. To evoke the blue state, you might recall the feeling of drifting off to sleep or sinking into deep meditation. A time that you’ve felt calm, open, and attentive could help you remember the green state. And a mildly stressful situation could help you tap into the yellow or red state. Concentrate on the emotions and sensations that come up as you recall each scenario.
  3. Note your observations: Pay close attention to how your body feels and reacts in each state. What physical sensations do you notice? What emotions are tied to each state? Write down your observations in your journal. Your notes should be personal and meaningful to you and serve as clear reminders of what each state feels like in your body.
  4. Return to calm: Exploring these states might stir up intense feelings, especially when you’re tapping into the higher-stress states. If you find it hard to come back to a more relaxed state after the exercise, take a few moments to engage in a calming activity, such as a guided relaxation exercise, going for a gentle walk, having a comforting chat with a friend, or losing yourself in a piece of soothing music.
  5. Handle the purple state carefully: If you have previously experienced the purple state, one eliciting an emergency response such as freezing or immobility, it may be beneficial to note any sensations associated with it, but only if this doesn’t cause you too much discomfort. If during the exercise the purple state arises spontaneously, causing extreme discomfort, stop the exercise and practice calming and grounding exercises. Do not try to activate the purple state intentionally during this exercise.
  6. Use your map regularly: Once your map is ready, use it as a daily check-in tool. Regularly ask yourself, “Where am I on the map right now?” Refer to your notes to identify your current state. Doing this can help heighten your awareness of your nervous system’s responses and equip you with the information you need to more effectively regulate your state.

Remember, your map is not a static document. It’s a living tool that will evolve as you continue to grow and understand yourself better. Keep updating it as you gain new insights about your responses and states.

Excerpted from Heal Your Nervous System: The 5-Stage Plan to Reverse Nervous System Dysregulation by Linnea Passaler, copyright 2024. Published by Fair Winds Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group. 



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.