Imagine that you’re an antelope.

You’re grazing on the savanna, minding your own business, when suddenly, out of the shadows, bounds a lion straight toward you. You can’t fight the lion, so you leap into action, running as fast as you can. You run, run, run, and miraculously, you escape.

Then, once the lion is gone, you do something that most mammals do after surviving a threat—You shake.

As the antelope, escaping the lion is key to surviving, of course. But shaking after you escape is surprisingly important for your survival, too.

That’s because, as Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain in their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, stress and stressors are distinct phenomena that require distinct solutions.[1]

Here’s what that means:

Stress vs. Stressors

Stressors are any stimuli we perceive as a threat. For the antelope, the stressor is the lion.

On the other hand, stress is our body’s response to a perceived threat—a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones that our bodies release to prompt us to find safety. As the antelope, you feel stress when the lion starts chasing you.

Stress is not inherently bad for us; stress is what happens in our bodies when we perceive that someone or something we care about is at risk.

However, stress can wreak havoc when it accumulates in our bodies. As the antelope, even though you escaped the lion, you still need to process the stress by shaking it out of your system.

How to Release Your Stress

Cultures across time and place have known that we need to shake, cry, laugh, dance, and move our bodies to discharge stress.

Unfortunately, modern-day dominant culture, rooted in Puritanism and Calvinist Christianity, disdains physical expressions of emotion.

As a result, many of us learn early on that others will reject us if we tremble, yawn, laugh too loud, or express too much emotion.

But no matter our social conditioning, in addition to dealing with our stressors, we need to deal with our stress, including the stress of heartbreaking, infuriating, or stressful situations that we witness others experiencing, whether through direct care work, policy work, hearing the news, or witnessing our loved ones struggle

If we don’t fully discharge our stress, it can stay in our bodies long after we’ve dealt with the stressors, making it harder to sleep, focus our attention, and access the energy we need to keep going.

The stress can build up until it becomes compassion fatigue or burnout.

The good news is that because stress and stressors are distinct… 

…it is possible to release at least some of our stress even if we don’t have the power to get rid of our stressors.

In Burnout, the Nagoskis write that the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle is (drum roll, please)—moving our bodies. They write:

“Physical activity—literally any movement of your body—is your first line of attack in the battle against burnout.”

Why Physical Movement?

Because we’re mammals. We need to speak our body’s mammalian language. If we were faced with a lion, we would… run! If we’re faced with a challenging boss, we need to… run!  

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to run away from your boss. You just need to run in addition to dealing with your boss.

And, no, you do not need to run, per se. As someone who hated gym class, I am not about to run. What works for me is doing yoga, walking in nature, or hula hooping to reggaeton or ‘90s dance music. You might bounce on a rebounder, punch a kickboxing bag, go for a bike ride, jump rope, take an online exercise class, or crank up the Motown at the end of your day and dance.

Somatic Practice

If you struggle to integrate exercise into your life, all is not lost. Small micro-movements such as swinging your arms, tapping your face, clenching your muscles and releasing them, taking a long exhale, or circling your ankles can be surprisingly effective for discharging stress and settling the nervous system. These practices are often referred to as somatic practices, soma being a Greek word that means the body, mind, heart, and soul in their wholeness.

Because these practices can be far easier to learn with visual and auditory guidance, I’ve created a  free online video portal called Somatic Practices for Social Change. I encourage you to experiment with the practices there and find out which ones soothe and settle you.

Once you find a practice you like, experiment with anchoring it to a regular part of your day. For example, you might practice when you wake up, go to sleep, go to the bathroom, wash the dishes, or get into your car. Or you might place a sticky note somewhere you’ll see it frequently with words reminding you such as Practice or Move or Breathe.

Then, when you’re facing a challenging decision or feeling activated, do your best to devote a moment to at least one settling practice before choosing your next steps. The more you engage with practices you find settling in the everyday moments, the easier it will probably become to remember to practice when you’re emotionally activated.

As Resmaa Menakem, somatic abolitionist and author of My Grandmother’s Hands writes: “Few skills are more essential than the ability to settle your body. If you can settle your body, you are more likely to be calm, alert, and fully present, no matter what is going on around you…  

Gather together a large group of unsettled bodies—or assemble a group of bodies and then unsettle them—and you get a mob or a riot.  

But bring a large group of settled bodies together and you have a potential movement—and a potential force for tremendous good in the world.”[2]

Think of these micro-movements like multivitamins or flossing your teeth. They can take some effort to integrate into your daily routine, but once you do, they can dramatically improve your wellbeing.

Here’s a link to my free Somatic Practices for Social Change video portal. I hope you’ll check it out and enjoy.

May you find many fun ways to release your stress and nourish your energy.

 


[1] Amelia & Emily Nagoski. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. (New York, NY: Random House, 2020.)

[2] Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. (Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press, 2017.)

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