Life is full of stress. Traffic, deadlines, interviews, conflict, financial pressure, the news, politics … the list goes on. Many of us are so accustomed to stress that it feels like a constant state. This is because we can into a never-ending stress cycle that feeds on itself.
In their recent book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors and sisters Ameila and Emily Nagoski suggest that we can break the vicious cycle of stress by completing the “stress response cycle” that is triggered by a stressful event. Like all biological processes, the stress response cycle has a beginning, middle, and end. Or rather, it should have an end, but unfortunately, all too often we don’t manage to complete this biological cycle. Instead, a stressor—getting cut off on the freeway or receiving harsh feedback at work—activates the same physiological response as if our ancestors encountered a lion in the wild. We go into fight or flight mode. The heart races, breathing quickens, muscles tense, stress hormones secrete! In nature, (assuming we didn’t get eaten by the lion) we would run away, find a safe place and rest. This burst of activity followed by rest would complete the stress response cycle, bring it to closure and allow us to recover. However, in modern life, many of us ping-pong from stressor to a stressor and are unable to find the release and the rest that we need. These repeated incomplete loops of stress build-up, making it hard to sleep and compromising our ability to manage the next event that might be a trigger. Our wellbeing and health suffer.
The Nagoski sisters recommend three ways to complete the stress response cycle by engaging in activities that mimic what our primal selves would do when they experienced a threat.
- Run! Literally go for a run, hit the elliptical trainer or dance to your favorite jam. Exercise is proven to release stress. And if you can’t engage in exercise, try tensing all of your muscles and holding for a slow count of ten and then relaxing.
- Seek safety. Seeking comfort from a trusted friend or loved one mimics the safety found upon returning home. They recommend a 20-second hug. A minimum of twenty seconds will trigger the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.” Your heart rate will slow and you will have an increased feeling of comfort and well-being. Caution: choose your hug partner wisely: twenty seconds can be an awkwardly long time to hug.
- Rest. A full night’s sleep is one of our most potent and essential restorative activities, and hopefully, if you have done the first two, you will be able to fall asleep. When you have trouble falling asleep, experts say that if you find yourself lying in bed with your thoughts are racing, you should get out of bed and do your worrying elsewhere. This helps train your mind and body that bed is a place for sleeping and sex, not for ruminating. Napping is also a great restorative.
Any one of these three actions can help complete the stress response cycle but try all three. The Nagoski sisters know what they are talking about—Emily has a Ph.D. in public health and Amelia was hospitalized twice for stress-related illnesses—they have both researched and lived the topic. And as they point out, wellness is not a state of being, it is a state of action: “the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human.”