Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

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.12 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.13 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.14

     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.15

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.

Writers and painters and creators of all kinds have said the same thing one Nashville songwriter told us: “Looking back at my very first songs, it’s completely obvious that I was dealing with my past, and trying to process my trauma history into something meaningful. At the time, I was completely in denial—I didn’t even know I had pain. But writing songs helped me feel what my mind had hidden from me. My songs were a safe place to put what I couldn’t deal with otherwise.”16

     Sophie is an engineer and a Star Trek geek and a lot of other things, but she is not an athlete. In high school, people saw a six-foot-one black girl and told her she should play basketball, and she told them where they could put their basketball. She hates exercise. She will not exercise. In fact, if she ever tries to exercise, after a few days she inevitably comes down with something or is injured, or a project comes up that means she doesn’t have time anymore. She can’t exercise. Can’t. Hates it, can’t do it, won’t do it.

So when Emily visited her office to lead a lunchtime seminar about stress and said, “Exercise is good for you,” Sophie approached her afterward.

“You don’t understand, Emily. It’s boring and painful and every time I do it, something goes wrong. I can’t, I won’t, I don’t want to, just no. No. I’m not going to exercise. I don’t care how good it is for my stress.”

Not everyone is a natural exerciser. But the research is so unambiguous that exercise is good for you that, as a health educator, Emily has searched for ways to support people who can’t exercise or hate exercise or just don’t exercise, for whatever reason. When she looked at the research, to her astonishment, most of the conclusions said things like “Join a team sport” or “Make it a hobby, not just exercise!” In other words, the advice said, “Find a way to enjoy exercise!” Which is good advice, but not for someone with chronic pain or illness, injury or disability, or someone like Sophie who will. Not. Exercise.

      But then Emily found a remarkable branch of research on body-based therapies, whose results she applies to folks like Sophie. Here’s what Emily suggested.

“Okay, so just lie in bed—”

“My favorite sport,” Sophie said.

“Then just progressively tense and release every muscle in your body, starting with your feet and ending with your face. Tense them hard, hard, hard, for a ssslllooowww count of ten. Make sure you spend extra time tensing the places where you carry your stress.”

“Shoulders,” Sophie said instantly.

“Super! And while you do that, you visualize, really clearly and viscerally, what it feels like to beat the living daylights out of whatever stressor you’ve encountered.”

“Okay,” Sophie said with some enthusiasm.

“Imagine it really clearly, though—that matters a lot. You should notice your body responding, like your heart beating faster and your fists clenching, until you reach a satisfying sense of—”

“Victory,” Sophie said. “I got this.”

She did. And strange things started to happen. Sometimes, when she was doing the muscle-tension activity, she felt inexplicable waves of frustration and anger. Occasionally, she’d cry. Sometimes her body would seem to take over and shake and shudder in strange ways, as if she were possessed.

She emailed Emily about it.

“Totally normal,” Emily assured her. “That’s your baggage unpacking itself. All those incomplete stress response cycles that have built up inside you are finally releasing. Trust your body.”

* * *

There are so many ways to complete the cycle, it’s not possible to catalogue all of them here. Physical activity, affection, laughter, creative expression, and even just breathing have something in common as strategies, though: you have to do something.

     One thing we know for sure doesn’t work: just telling yourself that everything is okay now. Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shift. Just as you don’t tell your heart to continue beating or your digestion to continue churning, the cycle doesn’t complete by deliberate choice. You give your body what it needs, and allow it to do what it does, in the time that it requires.

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?

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