If you’re living on planet earth right now there’s a chance you’re feeling a little, well, S-T-R-E-S-S-E-D.
With the ongoing and increasing demands to do ‘all the things’ in the fast paced digital age we are living in and oh yeah, the Global Pandemic. It’s a lot. But I’ve got great news. You don’t have to be a stress bomb waiting for your fuse to light! You can diffuse your stress and it doesn’t require hours spent meditating or heading to a remote fishing village to live as a recluse.
There are real-life solutions you can integrate into your…real-life!
In their new book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagoski explore the concept of stress (and how we can cope with it) in a way I’ve never heard discussed. And for me, it’s been a total game changer. As soon as I read this book full of the super sweet dorky science of stress, complete with evidence-based solutions, witty banter and pop culture references for clarity I was up on my soapbox sharing it with anyone who would listen!
OMG, we’ve been looking at stress all wrong!
‘Set better boundaries, let it go, make time for self-care’ (read: you’re in control of this, do better and make time for bubble baths and a do-it yourself mani/ pedi and it’ll all be fine). And while some of those things might be true (boundaries for one), the frame and strategies shared in this book are a total departure from the typical stress management pieces I’ve read. And they’re not only refreshing (ie. they don’t blame it all on us, the stressed), but rather they are effective (as evidenced by a personal story I’ll share in a jiffy).
Stress, Stressors and the Stress Response Cycle.
In the book they talk about stress in terms of the physiologic response in our body and how the solution isn’t more “self-care” (at least not in the traditional terms we’ve come to recognize). But rather, the solution is actively ensuring you’re engaging in activities and habits that complete the stress response on a regular basis.
The Stress Response has evolved, and it’s not good.
Think of it this way, from an evolutionary standpoint our stress response developed to help us fight or flee from a danger, say a wild animal. The stressor (in this case the animal) triggers a cascade of physiologic responses in our body: increased cortisol, increased heart rate and blood pressure and increased muscle tone. Every one of these responses goes to support of us fighting or fleeing from the stressor. At some point in the stress response there is a resolution or conclusion. Either you flee to safety, kill the animal or someone comes to your rescue! In any of these scenarios your body gets a physiologic cue that all is good in the hood – you are safe! Hurray! Your body returns to your rest/ digest parasymathetic state. Cortisol drops, as does heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tone.
In modern day stress this cycle doesn’t look the same.
Think about these modern day stressful scenarios:
- Some jerk cuts you off in traffic. You behave like a kind-hearted citizen and don’t lose your mind.
- The same jerk is rude to your friend in her business meeting. She shoves down the rage she feels and carries on with the meeting.
- You have an intense work project and you keep hitting hiccup after hiccup and the deadline looms. The clock is ticking but you have to get it done.
In every single one of these scenarios there is no physiologic resolution. There is no cue to your body that “all is good in the hood.”
Even if you report the driver, talk to your supervisor or get the work project completed on time, there is no physiologic/ body language cue to your body that you are ok, and it’s ok.
This results in incomplete stress responses being layered one upon the other until we’re in a state of chronic stress and potentially burnout. Yikes. But there’s good news! There are multiple evidence-based (read; proven in the research) ways to complete the stress response cycle and get you out of that chronic stress state and stave off burnout. Hurray!
Note: they also talk about why we’re all so stressed (human giver syndrome and diet culture among two of the major offenders) and other pro-active steps we can take to better manage our exposure and response to stress. But I’ll encourage you to read the book for all that juicy goodness. Today, I want to focus on the key take-away of understanding how modern day stress is getting us caught on the stress merry-go-round and landing us in burnout.
How to complete the stress response cycle.
In the book they list 6 fundamental ways to complete the stress response cycle, but because I really think you should read this book, I’m going to share the 3 that I thought were the most intriguing/ out of the box and encourage you to read the book to get the rest.
What? You found that to be intriguing or out of the box? I know, LOL. But seriously. I loved that they talked about physical activity, but also “got” that not everyone likes/ has time for 20-60 minutes per day (the recommended amount of exercise for the completion of the stress response cycle). In these scenarios they talked about making use of what I’ve always called a progressive muscular relaxation. In a progressive muscular relaxation you systematically tense and relax your muscles. Often we’ll start at the feet and lower legs and go all the way up to the facial muscles. I thought this was really powerful and personally find this really effective. Give it a try next time you feel stressed!
And consider this…if you struggle with physical activity and making time for it in your day. What if instead of looking at it for the “health benefit” could you reframe it as your strategy to close the stress response cycle? I’ve chatted with this with quite a few clients and they’ve told me it’s made for a powerful shift in how they frame exercise.
Positive Social Interactions:
Again, you might think, well duh. But here’s the science behind it. By having a positive social interaction it gives your body a physiologic cue that you are safe. Because if you’re laughing with your friend or colleague it’s not likely that you’re in the midst of being attacked by a hyena or yelled at by a jerk in meeting. They also specifically talk about the benefit of laughing and how when we laugh we use an ancient evoltionary system that was designed to maintain social bonds and regulate emotions (this is the work of neuroscientist Sophie Scott). Cool right? So find taht funny cat video or your fave romcom and get laughing!
There are lots of examples they give here but the one that spoke most profoundly to me was the 20-second hug. In this strategy you stand in your own centre of balance and put your arms around your willing hug partner (that’s important, remember, this is a physiologic cue that you are safe and well, not stressed!). YOu then put your arms around each other for 20 seconds. Which is a really long time.
A couple of weeks ago when I was just finishing this book I had a day. I posted something lighthearted about sugar on facebook and people went after me (you can read about it here). I felt attacked. Cue: stress. So, my lovely husband, who now works from home (thanks Covid) was called in for the 20s hug. I was skeptical a hug could really take my beating heart out of my throat and calm my rattled nerves, but wha-d-ya know…at 15-seconds in I felt a palpable full body sigh. Whoa. This is no joke.
I’ve now gone on to encourage everyone I know to make use of the 20-second hug after work, after school with kids, and any time they just need to feel that palpable full body sigh. You’re welcome.
There you have it. Seriously. So good. I can’t recommend this book enough. If you want a sneak peak you also might enjoy their podcast interview on Unlocking Us with Brené Brown.
We’re all pretty stressed out. Now more than ever. And that stress, it’s not going anywhere. So the “trick” to staying healthy (body, mind and spirit) is to make sure we’re doing what we can to complete the stress response cycle.
And a final note. They talk about 6 over-arching strategies. And within each strategy there are several methods. The other “trick” is to find the things that work for you – and give you that palpable body “sigh.” Keep exploring until you find yours!
Looking for some support reframing physical activity and bringing strategies like this to life (your real life)? Consider connecting with me for one-to-one coaching or join us in the Super You Studio where we talk about things like the 20-second hug all the time, because #life.