Once, at a previous job, I got a critical email from a colleague just before I was heading to bed.

The situation wasn’t so much a matter of fault as it was of disagreement, and a minor one at that. But even after I decided how to defuse it, I still felt anger and energy coursing through my body. That night, sleep didn’t come quickly or easily.

According to sisters Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, my restlessness that night makes perfect sense. While I may have dealt with the stressor—I had a plan for how to respond, and I knew, at least on a mental level, that the situation would be resolved—I didn’t deal with the stress. My body was left in its alert, fight-flee-or-freeze state, which was obviously not conducive to sleep.

In other words, I didn’t complete the stress cycle.

Once upon a time, many of the stressors we as humans dealt with were life-threatening (for example, the Nagoski sisters write, a hungry lion). Today, few are lethal, but our bodies still need a cue that we’re out of danger, that the threat is gone.

“You have to do something that signals to your body that you are safe, or else you’ll stay in that state, with neurochemicals and hormones degrading but never shifting into relaxation,” they explain. “Your digestive system, immune system, cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system, and reproductive system never get the signal that they’re safe.” 

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