Navigating the stressors in life is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. How we manage our stress can lead to some severe health concerns. In 2006, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Before my diagnosis, I had a lot of stressors in my life. My husband and I had adopted four children out of foster care, all simultaneously, and had several severe losses leading up to that event.
Looking back, I can see right now what a huge problem my stress and my lack of strategies to handle the stress was to my health. The lack of healthy ways to cope with my stress played a role in my cancer diagnosis. Since 2006 I’ve learned better ways to allow my stress to move through me without being stuck in the “Stress Cycle.”
In this month’s blog post, I want to share a few simple strategies you can put into place that will shrink your stress level and boost your health at home and work.
Types of Stress
Stress can be a positive. We all experience stressors throughout our lives. There are times when we need some stress in our life. The tension that leads up to an uncomfortable conversation or to learn a new skill. When we learn, we experience a level of stress. Both situations can create positive stress to push us forward. During a positive stress event, our hormones increase and then drop back down again. Stress is a part of life.
Then there’s that tolerable stress. These are events that are serious but temporary. We have people around us, supportive relationships, and supportive habits that help us through the experience.
Examples of tolerable stress are a short-lived financial strain, a close family passing away, an injury, or an illness. These types of events are tolerable for a short period of time. Tolerable stress can be endured when you have people and habits in place to support you.
Chronic or toxic stress is at levels that prolong the stress response systems in our body without the protective factors or the habits in place to support us through these periods of stress. I think back to my cancer diagnosis, and I had some unhealthy habits and increased prolonged stress levels. There were other healthy habits that I hadn’t continued when the stress increased, plus I wasn’t turning enough to the supportive people in my life.
Many situations or events in our lives can cause chronic stress. Burnout combines chronic stress and an environment that does not support our needs.
The Stress Cycle
The stress cycle is a physiological cycle. You can’t talk yourself out of the stress cycle. It’s not psychological.
Your body holds stress. A trigger starts the stress cycle. The trigger might be something like a lion; if we saw one, we would think of danger and run. If you watch animal kingdom specials, when a lion chases a gazelle, we know that the gazelle is going into mobilization and escaping the lion.
Now for humans, the trigger might not be a literal lion. It might be an event from our past, a comment, a feeling, or an action that sets you off. It can be many different events; however, recognizing that we may have some danger around us sends us into fight, flight, or freeze.
And that’s the way that we escape our lion. But once we’re out of danger, that lion is gone. That stressor is gone; you still need to complete the stress cycle. You need to have those hormones that help you physiologically feel connected, safe, and social enter your system. Even if the stressor is gone, those fight, flight, or freeze hormones are still caught up physiologically in the body. It helps you to move through the stress cycle to eliminate that stress.
If we were a gazelle and escaped a lion chasing us, we would physically shake after that long hard run that helped us move through this stress cycle.
We’re not gazelles. What can we do as humans? Invite you to create a pause. A pause can help you to complete that stress cycle. The first part of the pause is to recognize when you’re in that fight, light, and freeze mode. Second, implement a routine of actions or habits you can do to complete that stress cycle. The third is making a request. You might need to request someone to help you. or sometimes, it’s even making that request of ourselves.
You can implement a few actions and habits to complete the stress cycle. I like to call them “soul snacks” because they are activities, strategies, and practices that feed your soul.
This list is from the book Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski on strategies to complete the stress cycle.
- Physical activity can move stress hormones through our system and lead us into our body feeling safe and connected. Activities from running to walking to dancing to Zumba to biking. Any of these types of movements for 20-60 minutes per day.
- Breathing helps to calm our nervous system down so that we can get out of our amygdala (fight, flight or freeze part of the brain) and move into our prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of our brain. Throughout the day, take some moments to breathe deeply.
- Positive social interactions create connections with your friends and family daily to share things that are going right in your life. Sharing gratitude with someone is a great way to have that positive social interaction.
- Laughter: sometimes, our positive social interactions can lead to laughter. When you can laugh out loud, or even have a chuckle reflecting on a funny event can release endorphins and move you through the stress.
- Affection: Social interactions also can include affection. A 20-second hug, a six-second kiss, or cuddling with your pet are ways to receive affection. These actions release oxytocin, a hormone that helps us feel safe and connected.
- A big old cry, sitting down and permitting ourselves to cry, can be a big emotional release. Try not to think about what you’re crying about, and just feeling those tears coming down your face can be a way to complete your stress cycle.
- Creative expression can be creative writing, art, or music. However, creative expression can also be learning a new hobby, hosting a party, baking, or gardening. There are many types of creative expression.
Take a moment and write down some of these “soul snacks” you can do for yourself to create a habit.
Pause and prioritize one of the soul snacks you wrote down. Something that you can work into your routine. It doesn’t have to be long, five minutes of breathing, taking several laps around your workplace, joining up with a friend after a day at work to talk through the good things that happen throughout the day; all of those strategies are a way to complete that stress cycle.
“It’s not self-care. It’s all of us caring for each other.” –Burnout
I wish for you to take the time to pause, pick a “soul snack,” create a routine, make a request, and complete your stress cycle. It can make all the difference in your life.