Completing the Stress Cycle

Written by Francine Baffa, LICSW, BCBA-D
Edited by Joe DeNoon


Refueling our mental capacity is what allows us to be buoyant and cycle through life with more resilience. When we neglect to register what our internal meter is reading, we can enter a stage of burnout… and burnout has its own cycle. When in burnout, the depletion affects not only our mental state, but also our job performance 

“Wellness is not a state of being—it’s a state of action. It is the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human. Real-world wellness is messy, complicated, and not always accessible. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong; it just means you’re moving through the process. Grant your body permission to be imperfect and listen to your own experience.” – Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski from their book, Burnout.

Regardless of how we name it—burnout, compassion fatigue, or health worker exhaustion—this is a chronic issue among nurses. The pandemic has also exacerbated this, and it has a significant negative impact on mental health.

The internal stress we harbor during burnout takes a physiological toll on our bodies. Although the external stressor may have already passed, our own reaction resides until we are able to expunge the cortisol. An example that resembles this that you may be familiar with is traffic. If you have a difficult commute home, you don’t instantly feel peaceful and relaxed in your body when you arrive. Your body is still in the middle of the stress response. Even though you’ve dealt with the stressor by getting out of traffic, your body still needs you to deal with the stress itself by completing the stress response cycle.  Finding a way to let our bodies know we’re no longer threatened and can stop being stressed is one of the most effective ways to avoid burnout and emotional exhaustion. Physical movement is one great way to do this, but there are several other ways.

Here are some evidence-based strategies for completing our body’s stress cycle:

  • Creativity. Make something. Do you like to knit, paint, sing, write, or plant? Whatever creative endeavor speaks to you, do it and have fun.
  • Activity. It’s not just about going to the gym. All movement counts – dancing to songs of the ’80s, jumping rope, or hula hooping. The point is you have to use your body. Since stress is physical, physical activity is a big part of ending stress cycles.
  • Laughing. Especially when you can laugh together with someone, laughter is a way to release and express all the emotions we’re keeping inside. Emotions are like tunnels – if you go all the way through them, you can see the light at the end. 
  • Physical touch. Give someone a long, strong hug (about 20 seconds according to the research) or spend time with a loving pet. Physical affection helps your body release trust and bonding hormones like oxytocin, and those can chase away the sense of danger your body was previously holding onto. As our hormones shift, our heart rate slows, and our body begins to feel safe.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure when you’ve completed the cycle.  All you need to do is recognize that you feel incrementally better than you felt before you started. You can notice that something in your body has changed, shifted in the direction of peace. The key to unlocking a healthy relationship with work is to invest in daily acts of self-care.

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