On a long drive, I was listening to Unlocking Us with Brene Brown and this episode featured sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Nagoski and Nagoski shared a way to understand stress and burnout that I had never encountered and I felt encouraged by their research and recommendations.

 

What these sisters had learned in their research on stress and burnout was remarkable. Not only that, it was relatable. I found myself reacting aloud, “Yes!,” “That’s right!,” and “Tell me about it!” So, at the next stop, I ordered the book for myself and for my sister. Here’s what I learned that I would love to share with everyone I know and love:

 

By now, most of us are familiar with the idea that our sympathetic nervous system is our body’s response to stressors. When the body perceives a threat, there are physiological reactions: the heart rate increases, blood flow spikes, stress hormones like adrenaline are released, and the body becomes poised to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze.

 

Now, modern day stressors like a bottomless To-Do List or a conflict at work are not the same sorts of life-threatening stressors they used to be when our only goal as a species was survival, but the body responds the same way: fight, flight, or freeze. In today’s world, we can’t always react how we’d like to, and this equates to anxiety, depression, betraying ourselves, emotional avoidance, self-medicating, addiction, emotional eating, eating disorders, disconnection from loved ones, and/or any number of unhealthy coping mechanisms. And the stress doesn’t budge. Whatever it is for you, I’m going to take a risk and wager that it’s probably not working.

Here’s where it gets interesting; the authors made it their mission to find what does work for managing stress in healthy, effective ways.

 

According to the Nagoskis, the stressor (the threat) and the stress (the body’s response to the threat) are not mutually exclusive—the eventual absence of the stressor does not equate to the eradication of the stress response in the body. Let’s use a conflict at work as an example. A colleague is infuriatingly incompetent, but your supervisor doesn’t seem to notice. Let’s pretend that one day the boss’s eyes are opened and your dead-weight team member is let go. What a relief! No more stress, right? Well, not exactly. Time passes, the team works like a well-oiled machine and the person who acted as that stressor is long gone, so why do you still feel so on edge? Unfocused? Irritable? Exhausted? Because the stress is still present in your body. That is, just because the threat (stressor) is gone, does not mean that the body’s response to the threat (stress) is automatically eased. On the contrary, the body will hold onto that stress until it receives the message that you are safe, well, and loved. This is what the Nagoskis describe as the stress cycle. The trouble—the risk for chronic stress and eventually burnout—starts when we get stuck in the cycle.

 

The good news is that Emily and Amelia Nagoski did extensive research on how to encourage the body to complete the stress cycle (Yay!) and I’m going to try and make your life even easier by boiling them down here for you (Double Yay!).

 

  1. Move your body. Literally any physical activity can signal to the nervous system that it’s safe to release now. Get the heart pumping and the body knows instinctually how to flush the system. Choose an activity you enjoy and lose yourself in it.
  2. Breathe with awareness. Intentional inhale and exhale creates calm, both physiologically and emotionally, especially when the out breath is longer than the in breath. Breathe in for 4 seconds and breathe out for 6 seconds and repeat that pattern for a minute or two.
  3. Interact positively with another person. It can be your best friend or your local barista. Positive social interaction helps us feel like we belong and belonging = safety. The body can complete the stress cycle and let go.

4. Laugh out loud. Find yourself a funny film or give your goofy best friend a call and then simply give in to the moment. Laughter not only helps us bond with others, but it actually helps us regulate emotion and release any tension left over from the stress cycle.

5. Love with touch. Most people know that prolonged physical touch (a 20-second hug or 6-second kiss) releases oxytocin, the love hormone. What most people don’t know is that oxytocin is a stress hormone released in response to the activation of the stress cycle. It’s not just our minds and hearts that want to bond with others; our bodies crave social interaction as a way of completing the stress cycle and indicating that we are safe and well.

6. Cry your eyes out. Let yourself cry freely. Don’t worry about how you look or who will hear. Just let it out and give yourself the gift of experiencing the release of tension at the end.

7. Express yourself creatively. Engage in the act of expressing, designing, or innovating. Anything which helps you feel empowered to move through your emotions counts here. Paint freely, assemble a moody playlist, write a story where the main character feels how you do, etc. The process, not the product is the goal; move through your emotions and complete the cycle.

The amazing contribution of the Nagoski sisters is not necessarily any one of these strategies for coping with stress. The gift of this book is the understanding of how our stress begins with physical reactions in the body and therefore must conclude in a similar manner. Burnout happens when we encounter stressors every day but don’t address the resulting stress we experience. Now we have a roadmap and a better understanding of the why.

 

It is my hope that you have found this information as enlightening and encouraging as I did. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book because not only do the Nagoskis explore the stress cycle and how to complete it, but they also address the realistic challenges present in the lives of women that have prevented us from incorporating these forms of self-care in our lives to begin with—you know, incessant demands on our time, guilt-invoked obligation to others, the glorified martyrdom of the selfless wife and mother, the rat race of capitalistic consumerism, and so on. Rather than making us feel like productivity is our rent for existence—we are only as valuable and what we do and who we serve—us women need to feel accepted and valued for who we are.

It is important that we all—men and women alike—commit to shifting our culture’s expectations of women. If you believe, as I do, that each one of us has a unique set of traits and attributes that we spend our lives discovering and cultivating, then we owe it to every human being on this planet to commit to helping 51% of our population with the right to enjoy this journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

It is my hope that you have found this information as enlightening and encouraging as I did. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book because not only do the Nagoskis explore the stress cycle and how to complete it, but they also address the realistic challenges present in the lives of women that have prevented us from incorporating these forms of self-care in our lives to begin with—you know, incessant demands on our time, guilt-invoked obligation to others, the glorified martyrdom of the selfless wife and mother, the rat race of capitalistic consumerism, and so on. Rather than making us feel like productivity is our rent for existence—we are only as valuable and what we do and who we serve—us women need to feel accepted and valued for who we are.

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.
Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Writing and a student in the M.S. Family Therapy Program at Nova Southeastern University. Her research interests include identity construction, experiential learning, and mindfulness. She is a contributing editor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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