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

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.17

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.

The Practical Advice

The “how to” here is very simple:

First, find what works. It would be convenient if we could just tell you which strategy will work best for you, but you’ll probably find that different strategies work better on different days, and sometimes the strategy that works best isn’t practical day to day, so you need a backup strategy. You can probably already think of a few things that feel right, but experiment, then schedule that stuff into your day. Put it in your calendar. Thirty minutes of anything that works for you: exercise, meditation, creative expression, affection, etc. Because you experience stress every day, you have to build completing the cycle into every day. Make it a priority, like your life depends on it. Because it does.

Remember, Emily intuitively understood completing the cycle from early adolescence, while Amelia, genetically identical and raised in the same household, didn’t even begin to understand until after years of therapy, two hospitalizations for stress-induced inflammation, formal meditation training, and explicit instruction from her health educator sister. So we know everybody’s different. But with practice, you’ll begin to notice what different stress levels feel like in your body, and you’ll get a sense of which days require more or less time or intensity to complete the cycle.

* * *

For a lot of people, the most difficult thing about “completing the cycle” is that it almost always requires that they stop dealing with whatever caused the stress, step away from that situation, and turn instead toward their own body and emotions.

     By this point in the chapter, you know that dealing with the stressor and dealing with the stress are two different processes, and you have to do both. You have to, or else your stress will gradually erode your well-being until your body and mind break down.

Signs You Need to Deal with the Stress, Even If It Means Ignoring the Stressor

Your brain and body exhibit predictable signs when your stress level is elevated, and these serve as reliable cues that indicate you need to deal with the stress itself before you can be effective in dealing with the stressor.

1. You notice yourself doing the same, apparently pointless thing over and over again, or engaging in self-destructive behaviors. When your brain gets stuck, it may start stuttering or repeating itself, like a broken record, or like a breathless eight-year-old trying to get her mother’s attention by saying “Guess what? Guess what? Guess what?” You might notice yourself checking things, picking at things, thinking obsessive thoughts, or fiddling with your own body in a routinized kind of way. These are signs that the stress has overwhelmed your brain’s ability to cope rationally with the stressor.

2. “Chandeliering.” This is Brené Brown’s term for the sudden, overwhelming burst of pain so intense you can no longer contain it, and you jump as high as the chandelier. It’s out of proportion to what’s happening in the here and now, but it’s not out of proportion to the suffering you’re holding inside. And it has to go somewhere. So it erupts. That eruption is a sign you’re past your threshold and need to deal with the stress before you can deal with the stressor.

3. You turn into a bunny hiding under a hedge. Imagine a rabbit being chased by a fox, and she runs under a bush to hide. How long does she stay there?

     Until the fox is gone, right?

When your brain is stuck in the middle of the cycle, it may lose the ability to recognize that the fox has gone, so you just stay under that bush—that is, you come home from work and watch cat videos while eating ice cream directly from the container, using potato chips for a spoon, or stay in bed all weekend, hiding from your life. If you’re hiding from your life, you’re past your threshold. You aren’t dealing with either the stress or the stressor. Deal with the stress so you can be well enough to deal with the stressor.

4. Your body feels out of whack. Maybe you’re sick all the time: you have chronic pain, injuries that just won’t heal, or infections that keep coming back. Because stress is not “just stress,” but a biological event that really happens inside your body, it can cause biological problems that really happen inside your body but can’t always be explained with obvious diagnoses. Chronic illness and injury can be caused or exacerbated by chronic activation of the stress response.

     Amelia told Julie the story of how the science of completing the cycle saved her life (twice).

“It was when I was in grad school. I was trying to do something that mattered a lot to me, while simultaneously battling this totally dysfunctional administration—”

“Oh my God, that’s so familiar,” Julie said.

“—and the stress built up inside me in layers that got denser and denser until they finally crushed me. Halfway through the program, I was hospitalized with abdominal pain and a white blood cell count that was through the roof. They couldn’t find a cause; they sent me home and told me to ‘relax.’?”

“Whatever that means,” Julie said.

      “I didn’t know either! I just knew I had to do something. So I started noticing all the external stressors that activated my stress and recognizing how little control over them I had, so I could start letting go of those things. I feel sure it helped save my life. But it wasn’t enough. A year later, I was back in the hospital and they took out my appendix—the pressing layers of stress inside me had finally destroyed an organ.”