As we continue to live in the shadow of a global pandemic, burnout is a real risk for many. For so long now, we have been exposed to upsetting news while juggling work commitments, childcare, and financial pressures. We may also be trying to process grief, anxiety, and fatigue.
When we feel any emotion, our body generates a chemical reaction. And when our systems are being triggered by a constant, persistent ‘stressor’, we are at risk of becoming stuck in a chronically stressed state.
To help, I want to take a closer look at the ‘stress cycle’ which completes in the moment at which our bodies learn that, after facing danger, we are now safe. We know we are no longer at risk and we complete the full cycle to begin to move forward from the experience.
However, in their book ‘Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle’, identical twins Dr Emily Nagoski and Dr Amelia Nagoski discuss the fact that stress has become such a pervasive part of our modern lives, we never get to complete the stress cycle.
For example, our ancestors will have felt stress as a very real threat i.e., being chased by a tiger. It would have been a fight, flight or freeze dilemma that was resolved by our ancestor either killing the predator or escaping back to the safety of their village. There is a feeling of huge relief with both outcomes, and the stress cycle is naturally closed.
Today, you may be exposed to headlines about infection and death rates, vaccines and lockdown ‘roadmaps’. Alternatively, you may be stuck in a difficult job or relationship, coping with illness, facing tough financial pressures, or grief from losing a loved one.
You are not in full control of these external ‘stressors’ and this continued response leads to our systems becoming stuck in a state of hyper-or hypo-arousal. There is little opportunity to close the stress cycle and burnout can happen when we get stuck halfway through this process – we are not able to deal with the emotions left in our bodies.
Thankfully, the brilliant Dr’s Nagoski have highlighted the following methods that can give us the means to begin to close the cycle, so we can avoid chronic stress and burnout in the future:
1.MOVE YOUR BODY
The Nagoskis state that exercise is ‘your first line of attack in the battle against burnout’ and plenty of scientific evidence points to the benefits of exercise on our mental health. Whether it is running, stretching, dancing, or walking, any significant movement releases muscle tension and helps to purge the physical symptoms of stress we carry with us. Choose an activity that is safe for you and you enjoy, and aim to move your body for a minimum of 20 minutes a day.
2. TALK TO OTHERS, ESPECIALLY LOVED ONES
To process the stress cycle, your subconscious must acknowledge that the world is a safe place, and you are not at risk. Friendly social interaction is effective in nurturing this feeling of reassurance; take time to catch up with a colleague or exchange daily greetings with your neighbour. Have a chat with the supermarket cashier… These easy conversations help your brain to understand that there is no immediate threat. Still feeling stressed? Spend time with your loved ones. You can increase the feelings of security and ease if you connect with the people who care for you, and a warm hug releases oxytocin, the ‘happy’ hormone.
3. LET THE TEARS FLOW
Have you ever barely made it through the front door before you promptly burst into tears after an challenging day? Crying is your body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, relief, and frustration, and it feels cathartic to let go of our emotions. This prevents these negative feelings from becoming stuck and later presenting as stress symptoms such as fatigue or pain. After crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter a calmer biological and emotional state.
4. LAUGH LOTS!
‘When we laugh’, says neuroscientist Sophie Scott, we use an ‘ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.’ The more spontaneous and lively the laughter the better, as being playful triggers the release of endorphins, our natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins counteract the effects of cortisol and help us to close the stress cycle. Talking about happy memories when you shared lots of laughter has the same effect and builds closeness and trust. If you would like to know more, check out my everylife blog: ‘Not Just Child’s Play: Why Being Playful is Good for Grown Ups’.
5. SLOW DOWN AND BREATHE
One quick and simple way to adjust your stress response is to self-regulate your breathing. This helps to soothe the rush of adrenaline, quieten the mind and give you that moment to clear your thoughts. One easy technique is to breathe in for a slow count of five and hold that breath for three. Then exhale for a slow count of seven and hold it for another count of three. Repeat three times and in just over one minute you will have calmed your respiratory system, your heart rate, and your mind. Try it and see how you feel. There are lots of effective ways to do this. As a HeartMath coach I teach how to harness the power of breath for resilience, calmness and flow.
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If your symptoms of stress continue for a length of time, it is important that you seek help. Please speak to your GP.