Completing the Stress Cycle

About a month ago, my insightful friend, Janine Allo posted a podcast on LinkedIn by Brene Brown called “Unlocking Us”. On this podcast, Brene interviewed twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski on the topic of How to Complete the Stress Cycle. I ended up listening in, then subsequently bought their book, Burnout. I went on to recommend or send the book to any woman I could think of. It is just that profound. There are a multitude of brilliant ideas in the book but the most impactful for me is the idea of completing the stress cycle.

Stress is pervasive, especially in the isolation and uncertainty of a pandemic. We are hardwired to pick up stress from work interactions, technical snafus, personal disappointments, loss and general lack of control. But once the stressor is gone, the combative meeting is over, your friend slams down the phone, or the strange looking man has passed down the street, your stress cycle lives on.

As written in Burnout: “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 shirt. 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.” I’ve been looking to complete all open stress cycles (and there are MANY!) and it’s been an experiment. 

Here are some of the ideas on how to close the stress loop from the book:

  • Movement – Walk, run, hike, ski, swim, jump, skip, gallop, downward dog, dance, salsa, pirouette, saunter, bench press, jumping jacks, scoot, wiggle, jiggle, or twist for 20 minutes to an hour. Move your body. It’s the same sort of construct as Amy Cuddy’s posits on the power pose. Put your body in a position of feeling powerful and your brain will follow. Engaging in movement puts your body back in homeostasis so your brain closes the loop. It’s like your body says, “Hey I’m OK” and your brain follows along and says, “Whelp if the body says we’re OK, then we must be OK.” This is the Nagoski sister’s biggest recommendation in order to close the stress cycle. They say that it’s not the same amount of time or same activity for all folks or situations (even identical twins have different types of movement for different lengths of time). So, if the twenty-minute run worked yesterday, it may take a one-hour hike today after the contentious budget meeting. Get moving to close the cycle.
  • Breathing – As written in the book, “Deep, slow breaths down regulate the stress response – especially when the exhalation is long and slow and goes all the way to the end of the breath, so that your belly contracts.” When I coach clients and they are in the middle of a hectic day, I frequently take three minutes for long deep breaths to clear the space. Inhale for 5 beats, hold for 5 beats, exhale for 10 beats and hold for 5 beats. It’s almost miraculous how this clears the energy of anxiety and stress so that we can focus.
  • Positive Social Interaction – This is the most difficult cycle closer in the middle of a pandemic when you can’t even smile at the cashier from behind a mask. But you can wink or say “Thank you and have a nice day.” It takes effort. It means getting dressed for work in the morning and turning on your camera to try and connect with coworkers. It means connecting with those in your “bubble” or complimenting your assistant via zoom on her earrings. As the sisters write, “Reassure your brain that the world is a safe, sane place, and not all people suck. It helps!”
  • Laughter – I think of Dick Van Dyke singing the song “I Love to Laugh” in the movie Mary Poppins. I do love to laugh. Laughing with others like I did during a virtual bingo game for thirty coworkers last week was such a positive boost. Sophie Scott posits, “We use an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions.” I think of Roy, a southern boy, trying to teach me how to say “Fish” the down east way which is pronounced (completely incorrectly by me) as “Feeessshhh”. I’ve yet to get it right but the laughter in mispronouncing it is closing the stress loop.
  • Affection – This is yet another difficult cycle closer if you are isolated during a pandemic. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons so many are suffering from unclosed stress cycles. If you have someone in your “bubble” try either a 6-second kiss, a 20-second hug or petting a cat for a few minutes. As the sisters write, “Like a long mindful kiss, a twenty-second hug can teach your body that you are safe; you have escaped the lion and arrived home, safe and sound, to the people you love.” If you walk your dog while you exercise, you are getting the double bonus of movement and affection. Affection closes the loop.
  • Cry – Yep. It’s OK to cry. Let those tears stream down your face. It releases toxins and closes the cycle. In the book, they recommend finding your favorite tearjerker movie and bringing out the box of tissues for your favorite part. Close the stress loop by crying it out.
  • Creativity – I didn’t write a blog post for about 8 weeks. I was selling my house, moving and had a huge workload. It turns out that not writing was actually counterproductive. Writing could have helped me close my stress loop sooner. So here I am writing my sixth post in three weeks. I had no idea how therapeutic writing was until after I read the book, Burnout. So, write, story tell, paint, play your banjo, cook, color or create videos. Find ways to express yourself and close the loop.

So how do you know if you closed the cycle? I’m still figuring that out. I must say that since I started walking more with my dog, practicing twenty second hugs with Roy and writing blog posts again, I am calmer. I love the book’s metaphor: “It’s a gear shift – a slip of the chain to a smaller gear, and all of the sudden the wheels are spinning more freely.” I’d love to know what works for you. What helps you close your stress cycle?

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