As we enter September, it is crucial to talk about stress and its impact on women. Not only are we in another month of COVID, but the school year is starting back up, we are entering fall and the start of Seasonal Affective Depression, and the holiday season is right around the corner! Now more than ever we need to allow our body a chance at success to navigate stressors and anxiety.
Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2019) specifically for women with the goal of helping us figure out what the heck is going on inside our brains when we are stressed. They emphasize that completing the stress cycle is crucial to getting life under control. Just getting away from our stress isn’t enough because it doesn’t actually get us to where we want to be. They write that “if you’re moving away from a threat, it hardly matters where you end up, as long it’s somewhere safe from the threat.” It’s not just escaping the lion chasing us, it’s about celebrating that we escaped and telling our body that we are safe.
So what exactly is a stress cycle?
To put it simply, the stress cycle is the part after stress where our body notices that we’ve survived and made it through after feeling danger. Feeling safe completes the cycle!
Historically speaking, this might have been acted out by seeing a bear. The bear sees you in return, and your body tells you it isn’t safe so you run back to your village as fast as you can. The villagers come together to help you and kill the bear, and you all celebrate your successful maneuvering—thus completing the cycle. You made it safely home and there is no more bear! There’s a natural end to the cycle.
The problem is this is much harder to find in current life. Your coworker is really frustrating and talks while you are trying to get work done, or even adds more work to your plate. What do you do in return? Put in headphones, stare at your computer, or walk around your building. That’s great, it gives you a break! What happens though is you’ll go back to your desk and your coworker will still be there. You’ll go home and get a great night’s rest, and then go to work and your coworker will still be there. You’ll take a week-long vacation and, you guessed it, your coworker will still be there.
This isn’t great! The Nagoski sisters write that if you don’t complete the stress cycle, not only will you continue to have personal problems, but your health will fail over time. To put it simply—complete the cycle or die!
Yikes! How can I complete the cycle?
Great question! Here are the seven ways mentioned in Burnout that give you the highest chance at overcoming that stress and getting your life back to how it was meant to be.
- Physical activity. This one is most important and is the “first line of attack” when battling stress. This can be anything! Swimming, yoga, walking, even progressive muscle relaxation. Find the movement that speaks to you and get to it! Emily states that 20 to 60 minutes a day is best, but fill your time with what works for you.
- Breathing. This works best when your stress isn’t too high to start with. I like the 4-6-7 model best! Breathe in with your mouth closed for four seconds, hold it for six seconds, and release for seven seconds. In under a minute you can begin doing the work and make changes to your body.
- Positive social interaction. Being with others in your life is the “first sign the world is safe.” This doesn’t even have to be your partner or best friend, but just cashiers at the grocery store. Saying hello and receiving a smile in return can help move your stress dial down.
- Laughter. Laughing increases relationship satisfaction and connects us to others around us. Nagoski adds the caveat that this doesn’t count fake laughter, we’re looking for real, genuine, from the bottom of your soul kind of laughs here! Reminisce on funny stories with your friends, watch a comedian you enjoy, whatever it takes.
- Affection. When other social interactions aren’t cutting it, look to add more intimacy. Usually this comes from “some loving and beloved person who likes, respects, and trusts you and whom you like, respect, and trust.” It can be physical affection but it doesn’t have to be! Personally I have a large space bubble so my affection needs can be met by friends validating my experiences or petting my dog. That’s right, pets count here my friends!
- Crying. I’m constantly encouraging my clients to cry. There’s a physical response to doing it and you’ll notice your body feels better at the end. If you are feeling the need to let the feels out, do it! Embrace your body working with you.
- Creative expression. Burnout states the “the arts creates a context that encourages big emotions.” Paint a picture. Write a journal entry. Even listening to music counts! You’ll notice that these pieces will represent a part of you and will help process that emotion.
That makes sense!
Really, it doesn’t matter which of these you choose as long as you are choosing something. It is all about finding what works for you and making an active effort to continue moving through your stress daily. You might notice sometimes calling a friend completes the cycle and other times that would be creating an entire additional stressor for you. Just focus on addressing your needs. Mix and match approaches if you need to! At the end of the day, the most important thing is giving your body a rest and doing more than just the traditional self-care. You might be surprised at how quickly you notice a change!
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