How To Effectively Break Stress Cycles (according to the latest science)
Emotions are cycles that physically travel through our bodies. They have the capacity to consume us from the inside out and lead to burnout if we don't break the cycle.
Enter the Nagoski sisters.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., the bestselling author of Come as You Are, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, are here to help us end the cycle of overwhelm and exhaustion with their latest book “Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle”.
"If you don't want to burn out, quit living like you're on fire." Dr. Emily Nagoski
In a recent conversation with Dr. Brené Brown, the Nagoski twins share key insights from the latest science and prescriptive advice. They explain that burnout is defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion (fatigue of carrying too much for too long), depersonalisation (decrease in care, self-compassion and empathy), and a depleted sense of accomplishment (a sense of futility).
Dr. Emily Nagoski highlights that an emotion is a neurological event in our body. It is a neurological cycle that runs throughout our entire body - it has a beginning, a middle and an end. She also offers a helpful analogy, comparing emotional rides to driving through a tunnel until we reach the light at the other end.
Emotions are like a tunnel we drive through to reach the light at the end of it.
And emotional exhaustion is when we get stuck in the emotion, in the middle of the tunnel.
To get through the tunnel and overcome emotional stress, she advises us to start speaking our body language and do something that tells our body that we are now safe. Meeting a deadline, finishing a project, filing our taxes, etc doesn't tell our body that we are safe now. We have to use our body language.
Our body has an innate intelligence to heal itself: the nervous system naturally chooses the best response to stress completing the cycle - i.e. a freeze, flight, or fight response. Our role is to learn to listen to our body and trust its response without judgment. Nagoski points out we shouldn't feel shame if we adopt a freeze response - even if social conditioning tends to favour a fight response.
"Take your broken heart and turn it into art"
- Carrie Fisher
In her book and the podcast, the Nagoskis thankfully takes us through 7 scientifically-proven ways that can help us complete a stress cycle:
Physical Activity - ANY. FORM. OF. MOVEMENT. Running, walking, stretching, even just tensing and then releasing muscles can work
Breathing - slowing our breathing and focusing on our out-breath, making it especially slow and long, so the abdominal muscles are given a chance to fully relax
Positive Social Interaction - connecting with other people helps us tell our bodies that we are physically safe. Even moments of connection that may seem small do have a positive effect (e.g. saying hello to someone you walk past or telling your local shopkeeper you like her necklace)
A Big Laughter - and here, Nagoski is specifically talking about a big laugh-out-loud. The laughter that shakes your whole body. She even shares a handy pro tip here: even reminding ourselves of a time when we laughed out loud with someone else can have an instant effect
Affection - recent research has even shown that sharing a 20-second hug with someone (warmly hugging and feeling the stress melt away) can be just as effective in changing our hormones and mood as a going out for a long run.
A Big Old Cry - no, it won't solve the problem, but it lets the emotion flush out of our body. Nagoski advises paying attention to our crying experience: where we feel warmth or coolness in your body, where we feel tension or release in the body, how big or small our tears are, etc.
Creative Self-expression - The Nagoskis simply explain that it feels good to take what's inside you outside... and that's through self-expression, through art. A creative activity - such as drawing, knitting, dancing, writing, storytelling, making a photo album - gets our emotion outside our body into a safe physical space.
Sometimes the body just knows best. Start paying attention.
When do we know when the stress cycle is over?
Nagoski explains that our body will tell us and we need to learn to listen to our bodies. Learning to listen to our body is a skill we need to practice and she advises not to worry if we don't get it straight away. It's worth trying to notice incremental changes and appreciate incremental improvements - for example, you might have started feeling a stress level of 8, and now you're at 4.
Finally, Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski close their discussion with Dr. Brené Brown by reminding us of the importance of being disciplined with these techniques and of cultivating a regular practice. Investing in ourselves, not waiting until we're depleted.
Rest, human connection, self-expression, and befriending our inner critic are key to recovering from and preventing burnout.
Listen to the discussion between Brené Brown and Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski here.
Read (and also learn why stress affects women differently than men) the book "Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle" by Emily Nagoski, PHD and Amelia Nagoski DMA, here.