Have you ever dealt with a challenge but still felt stressed out even though the matter was resolved?

Today, I’ll share the reason this happens and what you can do about it. To understand how stress works in your body, let’s imagine you’re on the savanna, and a tiger starts chasing you.

Thank goodness your body initiates the cascade of physiological changes that tell you to… run!

The tiger is the stressor—any stimuli that activates your body’s stress response because you consciously or unconsciously perceive it to be a threat. And the physiological shift that occurs when your body perceives the threat and releases neurochemicals and hormones is stress.

In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski teach that stressors and stress are separate things.

Why the Difference Between Stress & Stressors Matters

It matters that we understand stressors and stress separately because we deal with stressors and our stress separately.

Here’s how we (and other mammals) deal with stress in the wild:

Let’s say the tiger chases an antelope. The antelope can’t fight the tiger, so the antelope runs! But maybe the antelope can’t outrun the tiger. So, as a last-ditch effort to survive, the antelope lies down and plays dead. Let’s say the tiger thinks—Oh gross! A dead antelope. I want mine alive.—and he lets the antelope go. The antelope survives!

Once the tiger is out of the picture, what does the antelope do?

Rather than just getting up and walking away, the antelope—like most mammals, including humans—shakes. The stressor is gone, but the antelope needs to complete the stress cycle. And she does that by shaking the stress out of her body.

Like all mammals, even after we humans deal with a stressor (and are safe from the tiger!), we still need to deal with the stress.

The great news is that, just like the antelope, if we allow them to, our bodies will complete the stress cycle on their own. We will shake, cry, laugh, scream, and move in all sorts of ways that allow the stress to move through us.

Why We Get Stuck in Stress

Stress is not the problem. The problem is that we often don’t go all the way through our emotional tunnels. We get stuck in the middle of an incomplete stress cycle.

We get stuck in the stress cycle for many reasons, including:

  1. We learn that we’re not supposed to feel or show certain emotions: It’s not nice. It’s weak.
  2. Sometimes, it is dangerous to show how you feel. You might risk losing your job or being attacked.
  3. We are in a helping profession or a caretaking relationship where we’re constantly holding space for others’ emotions and entering emotional tunnels with other people. If that’s you, you must devote time to processing through the stress you hold on behalf of others, even if you are not directly experiencing the stressors yourself.
  4. We don’t take time for the activities that allow us to complete the cycle (see below).
  5. We don’t realize that dealing with stress and dealing with the stressors require a whole different set of strategies. We believe that we’ve solved the problem when the stressor is gone.

The bad news is that you can get emotionally exhausted and burn out if you repeatedly cut the stress cycle short.

But the good news is that because stressors and the stress they cause are different, we can deal with our stress even when stressors are still present. In other words, we can feel joy, even while fighting big, intractable systems like patriarchy and racism.

So how to complete the stress cycle?

The research shows that the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle is (drum roll, please…) physical activity.

No, I am not telling you to exercise to look like the cookie cutter image of beauty that the Bikini Industrial Complex tells you that you should. Rather, I’m saying we need to exercise because of how it makes us feel.

To complete the stress cycle, we need to let our bodies know that we’ve survived the threat and we’re safe. We need to speak our body’s language.

If there’s a tiger, we run! If we’re dealing with a challenging boss, we run!

Personally, I don’t particularly like running (and that’s an understatement). For me, it’s yoga, walking, dancing, and most recently, climbing. For you, it might be bouncing on a rebounder, biking, hiking, or playing frisbee. Anything that gets your heart beating harder for twenty to sixty minutes helps you move through the tunnel.

Other ways to help your body complete the stress cycle include deep belly laughing, crying, tensing your muscles and releasing them, engaging in creative expression, giving and receiving hugs, and breathing deeply with a longer exhale than inhale.

Practice Completing the Stress Cycle!

As you practice, allow your body to feel what it feels. You may notice waves of rage, grief, panic, shame, or even joy. These are signs you’re going through the stress cycle.

If you’ve spent years holding anger or sadness or fear in your body, you probably have a lot of accumulated stress response cycles, and it may take a while to move through them all. You don’t need to know where the emotions came from to move through them.

Experiment. Notice how your body responds to different practices on different days. The most important thing is to schedule time—the research says we need about thirty minutes per day—and act as if your life depends on it. Pay attention to how you feel, and take the steps that help you feel incrementally better over time.

Finally, read Burnout. It’s incredibly well-researched and well-written. It’s one of those books that could change your life.

Much love and happy de-stressing to you!

🙂 Katherine


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