How to complete the stress cycle – end the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted
Sometimes we find a practice (or read a book) that changes everything. That was Emily Nagoski (PhD) & Amelia Nagoski (DMA)’s book “Burnout, the secret to unlocking the stress cycle” for me in 2020. I’ve scribbled on my copy so much that it looks like someone attacked it with a pen and a highlighter!
Here’s a short overview of one concept in the book called ‘completing the stress cycle'. I first heard Emily and Amelia speak about it on Brene Brown's podcast 'Unlocking Us'. Completing the stress cycle is a powerful tool for preventing or coping with burnout and powerfully dealing with stress and exhaustion. It's definitely helped me and I can't stop sharing it! This is only one concept in the book that is backed by science and filled with helpful worksheets and tools, so I’d recommend you invest in yourself and get a copy ASAP.
Complete the stress cycle & escape the lion
Stressors (sometimes I call them ‘triggers’) are what activate stress responses in our bodies. They could be a work deadline, family conflict, money concern, the mean voice in your head, memories or The Future. Your body interprets them as potential threats (aka a lion coming for you).
Stress ‘is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these threats’. The response might include your heart beating faster, muscles tensing or becoming really focused. Your body does this so you can cope with the stressor (aka run away from the lion).
To keep the lion analogy going, what happens next is this: you either get eaten by the lion, or you keep running, escape and celebrate that you’re still alive with your loved ones (yay!). Your stress cycle is complete and you feel relaxed.
In everyday life you aren’t outrunning the lion, so your body doesn’t always know you’ve 'escaped' the scary thing. Saying to your body ‘you’ve escaped’ or ‘it wasn’t that bad’ or ‘that person is just an idiot, ignore them’ won’t tell your body that you’re safe. The authors say, ‘…your body has no idea what ‘filing your taxes’ or ’resolving an interpersonal conflict through problem solving’ means. It knows, though, what jumping up and down means. Speak its language – and its language is body language.’
What should you do? Complete the stress cycle and tell your body you are safe
1. Most efficient method - move your body
Physical activity is the single most effective strategy to tell your body you’ve escaped the lion and you’re safe. In practice, this looks like:
Anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply for 20-60 minutes a day works for most people.
Do it most days (as you experience stress most days).
If you don’t have time or aren't able to get sweaty that day, doing a muscle relaxation (tensing your muscles and then relaxing while deep breathing) can also work.
Knowing that I need to complete my stress cycle motivates me to exercise (almost) every day, even when I don't feel like it (almost) every day.
2. Other ways, if you can’t move your body:
Deep breathing – let your body know it’s safe
Deep slow breaths tell your body and brain you’re ok, ‘especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so your belly contracts' according to the authors.
There are amazing free meditations on apps like Insight Timer and breathwork resources.
I use the technique of box breathing all the time, something navy seals and yoga practitioners agree works.
Positive social interaction – you are safe in your community
Create a nice, pleasant interaction with someone in your broader community. Say ‘hello’ to someone in the lift, chat to a colleague or smile at someone friendly when getting your coffee.
Laughter – you’re safe enough to laugh
Make it a REAL laugh! Watch a funny TV show, movie, listen to podcast or read a book you know will make you giggle.
My personal favourites are The Office, Schitt's Creek or Mindy Kaling’s ‘Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?’
Affection - find a loved one to hug
Make time for a good solid hug, a kiss or spend time with you pet.
Crying - let it out
Ah the old faithful. Cry and don’t judge yourself for crying, you’re breaking the stress cycle remember?!
Move through your big emotions with art, like painting, sculpture, music, theatre and storytelling.
I practice this with journaling and sometimes combine it with physical activity by doing a dance class.
How do you make this actually happen?
Find what works for you by testing, learning and staying accountable
Make it a priority every day and schedule it in your calendar
Share with the people in your life that you're going to do this, so you can say ‘Give me 30 mins, I need to do XYZ to complete the stress cycle’
If you miss a day, get back on the horse
Want support to implement this every day, get accountability and feel less stressed? Get in touch about individual coaching with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve got this,