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Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Author:Emily Nagoski

And, “When I was coming to terms with a trauma I experienced, sometimes my body would go into this state where I felt out of control, and it scared me because I felt out of control during the trauma itself. Now I know it was actually my body taking care of me; it was part of my healing.”

We don’t have words for the experience of having the brake come off—the shaking, shuddering, muscle-stretching, involuntary response that is often accompanied by waves of rage, panic, and shame. If you don’t know what it is, it can feel scary. You might try to fight it or control it. That’s why it’s so important that we give it a name: We call it “the Feels,” and it’s nothing to fear. It’s a normal, healthy part of completing the cycle, a physiological reaction that will end on its own, usually lasting just a few minutes. Feels usually happen in extreme cases where the stress response cycle is interrupted suddenly and not allowed to complete. It’s part of the healing process following a traumatic event or long-term, intense stress.

      Trust your body. The sensations may bring awareness of their origins, or they may not; doesn’t matter. Awareness and insight are not required in order for the Feels to move through you and out of you. Crying for no apparent reason? Great! Just notice any apparently causeless emotions or sensations or trembling and say, “Ah. There’s some Feels.”

The Most Efficient Way to Complete the Cycle

When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do?

You run.

When you’re stressed out by the bureaucracy and hassle of living in the twenty-first century, what do you do?

You run.

Or swim.

Or dance around your living room, singing along to Beyoncé, or sweat it out in a Zumba class, or do literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply.

For how long?

Between twenty and sixty minutes a day does it for most folks. And it should be most days—after all, you experience stress most days, so you should complete the stress response cycle most days, too. But even just standing up from your chair, taking a deep breath, and tensing all your muscles for twenty seconds, then shaking it out with a big exhale, is an excellent start.

     Remember, your body has no idea what “filing your taxes” or “resolving an interpersonal conflict through rational problem-solving” means. It knows, though, what jumping up and down means. Speak its language—and its language is body language.

You know how everyone says exercise is good for you? That it helps with stress and improves your health and mood and intelligence and basically you should definitely get some?6 This is why. Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.

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.7 People with more acquaintances are happier.8 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.9 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.”10

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 post-hug increase in the social-bonding hormone oxytocin.11

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.”