Complete Your Stress Cycle to Avoid Burnout

July 18, 2022

This is a guest post written by Claire Dinan

Burnout is at an all time high. The pandemic has created the perfect storm for increased workloads and emotional exhaustion. 

What can be done to avoid burning out? Are there any practices we can adopt to help us deal with the increasing stress of modern life?

In this article, we’ll explore six ways you can complete your stress cycle and have a healthier and more sustainable approach to managing everyday stress.

What is burnout? 

There are many definitions of burnout, and it’s something we feel quite intuitively but it was first coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975 as being a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life. 

Nowadays burnout’s definition has expanded to include our personal as well as professional life, with emotional exhaustion being the symptom most correlated with negative impacts on our health, relationships and work. 

Why is burnout a problem and how does it relate to stress?

This emotional exhaustion shows up differently for each of us, but here are some common examples:

  • You feel helpless
  • You feel unmotivated at work or in life
  • You stop participating in activities you used to draw enjoyment from
  • You are increasingly cynical and have a hard time seeing the positive in situations

In our everyday lives, we’re constantly being exposed to different stressful situations. Stress in and of itself is a natural response, and thus not an entirely negative one. But the challenge is that many of us don't know how to complete what's called the stress response cycle, a phrase I first learned by the Nagoski sisters.

Easily one of the coolest pair of twins out there

What is the stress response cycle?

The stress response cycle is a biological process in our bodies that has a beginning, middle and an end. 

  • The beginning = perceiving the threat.
  • The middle = our body responding to the threat / stressor i.e. cortisol begins to pump through our bodies and we get ready to fight or take flight. 
  • The end = the completion of the cycle through releasing the stress from our bodies.

Back in the day, the stressors that used to activate our Stress Cycle were threats to our physical survival, like being eaten by lions (beginning). Our bodies would respond by either fighting the lion, hiding in a bush, or running back to our village (middle). And we’d complete the stress cycle by celebrating and hugging our friends and family, signifying to our bodies that we were safe (end). 

Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the modern day things that cause our stress response to activate and the natural completion of our stress response to let our bodies know we are safe. 

Nowadays, our activation comes from the stress of screaming children, tight deadlines at work, or even commuting home in heavy traffic. Our bodies respond in the same way as if we were being attacked by lions; we feel under threat and our stress response activates. 

But we are not able to run away from our modern stressors in the same way we were able to run away from lions. We have to commute, we have to look after our children, and we have to go to work. In other words, we don’t complete the stress cycle. 

What does this mean? 

Even when our stressor goes away, the stress in the body doesn’t. So when we finish our commute or our children stop screaming, the stressor might have momentarily passed but we still feel the impact in our bodies. 

Unless we complete our stress cycle, the stress builds up in the body and can eventually lead to burnout / emotional exhaustion.  

“The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will - unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle. While you’re managing the day’s stressors, your body is managing the day’s stress. It’s absolutely essential to your wellbeing that you give your body the resources it needs to complete the stress cycles that have been activated.”

 — Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski

What is the difference between stress and a stressor? 

Stressors activate the stress response in our body. The Nagoski sisters differentiate between:

1. Internal stressors: those that are less tangible for example self criticism, body image, identity, memories and The Future

2. External stressors: work, money, family, time, discriminations, etc.

Stressors can really be anything that your body perceives as a threat. 

Stress, on the other hand, is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter a threat.

In other words, it’s our stress response system of fight, flight or freeze. Our bodies turn on to protect us – muscles tense, your heart beats faster, your blood pumps harder and blood is pushed into your muscles and other organ systems get deprioritized. 

The good news (yay!) 

We don’t need to be able to get rid of our stressors to be able to release the emotion of stress from our body. We can do things to complete our stress cycle everyday. 

“The good news is that stress is not the problem. It’s how we deal with stress—not what causes it—that releases the stress, completes the cycle, and ultimately, keeps us from burning out. You can’t control every external stressor that comes your way. The goal isn’t to live in a state of perpetual balance and peace and calm; the goal is to move through stress to calm, so that you’re ready for the next stressor, and to move from effort to rest and back again.”

— Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski

How do we complete the Stress Cycle?

Emily and Amelia suggest 7 simple ways to do so:

  1. Breathing – Slow, deep breaths help down-regulate the nervous system and signal to our bodies that we’re safe. 
  1. Physical activity – Go for a run, walk, or jog when you get home from work. Do jumping jacks outside your front door. Tense your whole body for 10 slow counts and then release. All of these count. And work. 
  1. Laughing – How great is this? The only caveat the sister’s give is that it has to be real, belly deep laughter. Not as easy to find but incredibly effective. Remembering a time where you had this laughter also works! 
  1. Positive social interaction – any positive social interaction works. Heading down to your local cafe and saying ‘hi’ to the barista counts. Complimenting someone’s outfit counts. It signals to your brain that the world is a safe place, and that you are safe. 
  1. Crying – We’ve been taught that crying equals weakness. But I'm here to let you know that it’s okay to cry. And actually, that it can lead to increased health. Crying is our body’s way of releasing stress. So bawl away, my friends. 
  1. Creativity – Draw, sing, color, daydream. Whatever creative expression appeals to you, get stuck in and release that stress. 
  1. Physical affection – Nothing like a big hug to help your body feel like it’s safe. Make sure you’re both standing grounded and learning into each other for 20 seconds. This doesn’t even have to be from a romantic partner, just anyone that you feel safe with.

How do you know if you’ve completed the cycle? 

Simple: you feel it. 

If you’ve ever:

  • cried your eyes out and then suddenly felt better,
  • or felt your stress melt away as your mental state changes during a hug,
  • or gone for a run and felt more clear headed and relaxed,

Then you know how it feels. 

Some of us will be able to instantly recognize that we feel better and know we’ve completed the cycle. Some of us, especially those of us who have been holding on to a lot of stress, may not be able to feel it as easily. But don’t worry, it’s still working. You’re just working through a back-log of stress in the body! 

The point is to do one of these 7 activities until you feel better than when you started.

Explore which of these strategies works for you and what you enjoy. And start finishing your stress cycles. 

Words of Wisdom

"Wellness is not a state of being—it’s a state of action. It is the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human. Real-world wellness is messy, complicated, and not always accessible. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong; it just means you’re moving through the process. Grant your body permission to be imperfect and listen to your own experience."

— Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski