Complete the stress cycle to stop feeling emotionally drained

In their ground-breaking book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski reveal that completing the ‘stress cycle’ is the most effective way to avoid burnout and emotional exhaustion. Physical activity is one way to do this, but the following extract shows there are several other ways to complete the cycle to release your stress. 


Other ways to complete the cycle

Physical activity— literally any movement of your body— is your first line of attack in the battle against burnout. But it’s not the only thing that works to complete the stress response cycle— far from it! Here are six other evidence- based strategies:

Breathing. Deep, slow breaths downregulate the stress response— especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts. Breathing is most effective when your stress isn’t that high, or when you just need to siphon off the very worst of the stress so that you can get through a difficult situation, after which you’ll do something more hardcore. Also, if you’re living with the aftermath of trauma, simply breathing deeply is the gentlest way to begin unlocking from the trauma, which makes it a great place to start. A simple, practical exercise is to breathe in to a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times— just one minute and fifteen seconds of breathing— and see how you feel.

Positive Social Interaction. Casual but friendly social interaction is the first external sign that the world is a safe place. Most of us expect we’ll be happier if, say, our seatmate on a train leaves us alone, in mutual silence; turns out, people experience greater well- being if they’ve had a polite, casual chat with their seatmate. People with more acquaintances are happier. Just go buy a cup of coffee and say “Nice day” to the barista. Compliment the lunch lady’s earrings. Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck. It helps!

Laughter. Laughing together— and even just reminiscing about the times we’ve laughed together— increases relationship satisfaction. We don’t mean social or “posed” laughter, we mean belly laughs— deep, impolite, helpless laughter. 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.”

Affection. When friendly chitchat with colleagues doesn’t cut it, when you’re too stressed out for laughter, deeper connection with a loving presence is called for. Most often, this comes from some loving and beloved person who likes, respects, and trusts you, whom you like, respect, and trust. It doesn’t have to be physical affection, though physical affection is great; a warm hug, in a safe and trusting context, can do as much to help your body feel like it has escaped a threat as jogging a couple of miles, and it’s a heck of a lot less sweaty.

One example of affection is the “six- second kiss” advice from relationship researcher John Gottman. Every day, he suggests, kiss your partner for six seconds. That’s one six- second kiss, mind you, not six one- second kisses. Six seconds is, if you think about it, a potentially awkwardly long kiss. But there’s a reason for it: Six seconds is too long to kiss someone you resent or dislike, and it’s far too long to kiss someone with whom you feel unsafe. Kissing for six seconds requires that you stop and deliberately notice that you like this person, that you trust them, and that you feel affection for them. By noticing those things, the kiss tells your body that you are safe with your tribe.

Another example: Hug someone you love and trust for twenty full seconds, while both of you are standing over your own centers of balance. Most of the time when we hug people, it’s a quick, lean-in type hug, or it might be a longer hug where you each lean on each other, so that if one person lets go, the other person would fall over. Instead, support your own weight, as your partner does the same, and put your arms around each other. Hold on. The research suggests a twenty-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood, all of which are reflected in the posthug increase in the social- bonding hormone oxytocin. Like a long, mindful kiss, a twenty-second hug can teach your body that you are safe; you have escaped the lion and arrived home, safe and sound, to the people you love. Of course, it doesn’t have to be precisely twenty seconds. What matters is that you feel the shift of the cycle completing.Therapist Suzanne Iasenza describes it as “hugging until relaxed.”

Happily, our capacity to complete the cycle with affection doesn’t stop with other human beings. Just petting a cat for a few minutes can lower your blood pressure, and pet owners often describe their attachment to their pets as more supportive than their human relationships. No wonder people who walk their dogs get more exercise and feel better than people who don’t—they’re getting exercise and affection at the same time. And for people whose experiences have taught them that no one is trustworthy, therapies with horses, dogs, and other animals can open a door to the power of connection.

Our capacity to complete the cycle with affection doesn’t even stop at connection with mundane life on Earth. Often when researchers examine the role of spirituality in a person’s well-being, they talk about “meaning in life” — which is so important we’ve got a whole chapter on it (chapter 3) — or about the social support provided by fellow members of a religious community. But a spiritual connection is also about feeling safe, loved, and supported by a higher power. In short, it’s about feeling connected to an invisible yet intensely tangible tribe.

A Big Ol’ Cry. Anyone who says “Crying doesn’t solve anything” doesn’t know the difference between dealing with the stress and dealing with the situation that causes the stress. Have you had the experience of just barely making it inside before you slam the door behind you and burst into tears for ten minutes? Then you wipe your nose, sigh a big sigh, and feel relieved from the weight of whatever made you cry? You may not have changed the situation that caused the stress, but you completed the cycle. Have a favorite tearjerker movie that makes you cry every time? You know exactly when to grab the tissues and sniff, “I love this part!” Going through that emotion with the characters allows your body to go through it, too. The story guides you through the complete emotional cycle.

Creative Expression. Engaging in creative activities today leads to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm tomorrow. Why? How? Like sports, the arts — including painting, sculpture, music, theater, and storytelling in all forms — create a context that tolerates, even encourages, big emotions. In the first flush of romantic love, for example, all those songs on the radio suddenly make sense! And those songs keep us company even when our friends are rolling their eyes and sick of hearing about how in love we are. And when we are heartbroken, there’s a playlist to lead us through the tunnel of our grief and keep us company as we move through it, to a place of peace. In this way, literary, visual, and performing arts of all kinds give us the chance to celebrate and move through big emotions. It’s like a cultural loophole in a society that tells us to be “nice” and not make waves. Take advantage of the loophole.

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How do you know you’ve completed the cycle?

It’s like knowing when you’re full after a meal, or like knowing when you’ve had an orgasm. Your body tells you, and it’s easier for some people to recognize than others. You might experience it as a shift in mood or mental state or physical tension, as you breathe more deeply and your thoughts relax.

For some people, it’s as obvious as knowing that they’re breathing. That’s how it is for Emily. Long before she knew about the science, she knew that when she felt stressed and tense and terrible, she could go for a run or for a bike ride and at the end of it she would feel better. Even on the days when she looked at her shoes and thought, Ugh, I just don’t want to, she knew that on the other side of those shoes and that run or that ride was peace. Once, she even cried at the top of a hill in southeastern Pennsylvanian farm country, breathing hard and marveling at the smell of cows and the glow of sunlight on the pavement, as the gears of her bike whirred under her. She has always been able to feel it intuitively, the shift inside her body.

How does it feel? It’s a gear shift — a slip of the chain to a smaller gear, and all of a sudden the wheels are spinning more freely. It’s a relaxation in her muscles and a deepening of her breath. The more regularly she exercises, the more easily she gets there. If she has let the stress accumulate inside her for days or weeks, one workout won’t get her all the way there. She’ll feel better at the end of a run, but not done. If you’ve spent a long time accumulating incomplete stress response cycles inside your body, you may have this experience, too. When you begin practicing strategies to complete the cycle, you’ll feel only some relief at first, not necessarily the full relaxation of completion. That’s okay, too.

For others — like Amelia — recognizing when the cycle completes is not so intuitive. She was in her therapist’s office, feeling anxious, the first time she noticed it happening. The therapist asked her to describe what her anxiety felt like, and Amelia waxed poetic for about four minutes, talking about the tension in her shoulders and the heat in her neck and the quivering in her hair follicles, then stopped to breathe.
“And how do you feel now?” the therapist asked.
“Um. I . . . I don’t know. I can’t find it anymore. I think it’s just . . . gone?”
“Yeah. That’s how it works. If anxiety starts, it ends.”
“It just ends?”
“Yeah. If you let it, it just ends.”

We asked a group of therapists how they could tell they had completed the cycle. One therapist talked not about herself, but about her young daughter. When her daughter came to her in distress, she would hold her, as a mother does, and watch her face as she cried. Gradually, the taut muscles in the little girl’s face and body would soften, and she would give a great big shuddering sigh, and then she’d be able to talk about what had happened to cause the distress. The big sigh was the signal that her little body had made the shift.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure you can recognize when you’ve “completed” the cycle. Especially if you’ve spent a lot of years — like, your whole life, maybe — holding on to your worry or anger, you’ve probably got a whole lot of accumulated stress response cycles spinning their engines, waiting for their turn, so it’s going to take a while before you get through the backlog. All you need to do is recognize that you feel incrementally better than you felt before you started. You can notice that something in your body has changed, shifted in the direction of peace. “If I was at an eight on the stress scale when I started, I’m at a four now,” you can say. And that’s pretty great.

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