You’ve probably read a handful of articles warning you about stress. It’s bad for your body. It’s bad for your metabolism. It shortens your life expectancy, affects the quality of your relationships. . . . In other words, stress is not your friend. You probably don’t need science to tell you that, anyway; stress is super uncomfortable!
I’m not here to tell you how to inoculate yourself against stress. I’m here to say that stress can be your friend, as long as you let it live through its natural life cycle. As I’ve mentioned before, twin sisters Amelia and Emily Nagoski’s new book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle has totally changed the way I think about my least favorite emotion. And they explain that it’s when your “stress cycle” doesn’t ever end, that your body starts to suffer.
So, what is a stress cycle, and how does one complete it?
Your body gets flooded with stress hormones for a good reason. All your emotions are there for a reason, after all. Stress is a little like anger. Anger isn’t the most comfortable sensation to feel, but it’s serving a purpose—it safeguards our sense of justice, and protects us from people who want to trample on that. Anger that goes on and on without a purpose is a problem, but a burst of appropriate anger at an unjust situation? We shouldn’t be so quick to turn off that emotion or we’ll risk missing what it’s telling us.
Similarly, stress is supposed to protect us. As Emily Nagoski tells NPR,
"Our physiological stress response is very well designed to help us survive short-term acute stressors, like being chased by a lion. When you see the lion, your body floods with adrenaline and cortisol and glycogen all in preparation to help you engage in a behavior to help save your life. In this case, it's going to be running."
So after the stress response has completed—after you escape the lion—what happens then? You might celebrate with your loved ones, or you shout in triumph, or you fall on the bed and cry your eyes out, or you wrap your family up in a hug. You do something—you do something physical. Biochemically, Nagoski says, "that activity signals to your body that you're safe now. Your stress isn't needed anymore, and the cycle is complete."
For better or worse, Nagoski says, the modern world offers us different stressors than the ones humans used to encounter. Many of today’s stressors are hard to escape. “The jerk at work, traffic, these things are not going to kill us, but they do elevate our stress response in a similar way, but they don't offer us the same opportunity to complete the stress response cycle.” This is how stress compounds for many people today. “We’re walking around with a couple decades of incomplete activated stress response cycles in our bodies,” Nagoski notes, and we need to do something about it.
Even though the stressor—that big deadline, that mean coworker—may no longer be bothering us at the end of our day, our bodies still need to be told that it’s okay to complete the stress response.
If you’re noticing compounding stress and wonder what to do about it, here are some surefire ways to bring the stress cycle to a peaceful close.
No, I promise you don’t need to go to the gym, unless that’s something you love. Dancing counts. Jumping jacks in your studio apartment are fine. Running, swimming, even stomping your feet and screaming or punching your pillow into oblivion. All of these work; the point is you have to use your body. Since stress is physical, physical activity is a big part of ending stress cycles.
Make something. Do you like to knit, paint, sing, write, or play with modeling clay? Whatever creative endeavor speaks to you, do it. I am trying to teach myself to play the ukulele, and while I am unbelievably bad at it, plunking away at the thing still always manages to make me feel better.
Especially when you can laugh together with somebody, laughter is a way to release and express all the emotions we’re keeping inside. It even works to recall a funny story that made you laugh in the past.
Crying is for everybody. Babies cry because it’s good for them, and it’s good for you, too. Crying is literally one of our body’s mechanisms to release stress. It’s important not to be so embarrassed by our tears that we stop them from coming out; I myself am working on that so I don’t miss out on the benefits. Tears come, and they pass, and if I’ve accepted that process, I always feel a little better when they end.
You don’t have to have a romantic partner, just somebody who’s willing to give you a long, strong hug. Physical affection helps your body release trust and bonding hormones, and those can chase away the sense of danger your body was previously holding onto.
This one’s great for when you’re in an Uber, or at work, or anywhere it’s not really appropriate to scream or cry or dance it out. Breathe in slowly for five seconds, hold that breath for five more seconds, and exhale for ten seconds. Just a few minutes of this practice can calm down your vagus nerve and complete your fight-or-flight stress response.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how much influence our bodies have over our moods? Your body is you. Your moods are characterized by real chemicals, made by your brain. That’s why we can’t just talk ourselves out of stress responses and expect to move on with our lives. Understanding that stress is a cycle that needs to be felt and completed is a huge step in learning to let stress do its job . . . and then gracefully exit.
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