Do you ever find yourself in a season of high stress? The kids have sports and after-school programs. You and your spouse have increased work demands. The extended family wants time with you, and friends want to hang out. You just want to chill.
Increased stress levels, when not managed, can lead to burnout. Burnout happens when you are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted from prolonged stress. There are three dimensions to burnout: exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment. We're all in danger of suffering from burnout if we don't take steps to manage stress.
A typical response to someone suffering from burnout is to tell them to practice self-care. Self-care is anything you do regularly to maintain physical, mental and emotional well-being. But while self-care is essential, is it the solution?
Emily and Amelia Nagoski address this topic in their book, "Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle." They argue that while we all lead lives filled with stress, we never complete the "stress cycle."
Wait, what's a stress cycle? When a stressful situation occurs, our heart pounds, breathing speeds up and muscles tense. Our body naturally responds by "fight or flight." This is our primary survival response to any stressful situation. Stress is heightened, but to complete the stress cycle, we need to feel safe again.
In today's world, our stress heightens, and our body wants us to fight or flee, but we may decide to distract ourselves instead. We never really complete the cycle; we just cover it up. This leads to a state of chronic stress because we've never allowed the stress hormones to decrease.
So the answer isn't simply self-care. While self-care is essential to our physical and mental well-being, we're just putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound if we don't address the chronic stress.
The Nagoskis offer these seven ways to finish the stress cycles:
1. Move. Exercise is your first line of defense against burnout. Whether you run, cycle, swim or do whatever, get active for 20 to 60 minutes per day.
2. Breathe. Breathing exercises can regulate our stress response. When your kids get frustrated, do you find yourself telling them to take three to five deep breaths? That's excellent advice, but we should practice it as well. The Nagoskis advise, "a simple, practical exercise is to breathe in to a slow count of five, hold that breath for five, then exhale for a slow count of 10, and pause for another count of five. Do that three times, and see how you feel."
3. Talk to people. Our brain desires safety when faced with stress. We are built for community, so surrounding ourselves with friends and family lets us know the world is a safe place. We aren't designed to navigate the stress of this life alone.
4. Laugh. Laughter really is good medicine. Laughing together makes a relationship stronger.
5. Speak to loved ones. Sometimes you need to spend time with someone you have a deep, intimate connection with. A conversation with a person you deeply respect and care about and who deeply cares about you can be highly beneficial in completing a stress cycle. Physical affection is a plus. A comforting embrace reduces stress levels.
6. Cry. A good cry can reduce stress, too. You may not solve the situation that caused the stress, but a solid cry can help you complete the cycle. There's relief in just letting it all out.
7. Get creative. Creativity leads to positive energy and enthusiasm. Whether it's art, writing, music or another outlet, just get those creative juices flowing.
Completing stress cycles can prevent us from facing burnout. Self-care helps, but our bodies need more. We can't escape stress. But we can complete the stress cycle if we practice these techniques, allow our bodies to reset and prepare for future stress.
Mitchell Qualls is vice president of operations at family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at [email protected].