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The Stress Cycle

Continuing this series of blogs about burnout, this is the first of a short series that look at recovery from burnout. In previous blogs I have talked about the research carried out and excellent book written by Emily and Ameila Nagoski: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.

They are clear that when we are facing feelings of burnout and overwhelm, our first step has to be “completing the stress response” which we still carry in our bodies. 

Stress in the animal world

Peter Levine, leading trauma researcher, discovered that while animals in the wild are under the constant threat of death or injury, they appear not to display any signs of on-going trauma. His studies revealed that this was due them utilising the freeze response – or playing dead,  thus rendering themselves (the target) less of a threat (rather than fight or flight which involve considerable physical action. )

Once the animal is safe, it needs to complete the last part of the stress response, a process of shaking and trembling, which serves to discharge the colossal amounts of energy that had initially been built up in preparation for fighting or fleeing. If that phase does not take place, that charge of energy becomes trapped inside the body, keeping it in a state of perceived threat, with dire consequences for mind and body; however, it is in the body that this constant state of warning needs to be disabled.

Humans also get stuck in freeze mode

When we worry,  this triggers our nervous system and activates a physical response. The more we worry, the more discomfort we feel and we start to do all we can to avoid situations that increase our worry –  this feels good in the short term but makes our anxiety worse – our stress response (when our bodies chronically produce adrenaline and cortisol) is ongoing. WE are, like the animal described above, stuck in freeze mode.

What is the Stress Cycle?

The stress cycle was originally studied in the United States by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in the late 1960s. They examined the medical histories of patients to determine whether stressful life events, such as divorce, death of a loved one, home ownership or having children were associated with an increase in illness. Statistically, they found overwhelming evidence that increasing levels of stress seemed to contribute directly to physical illness and created the now well-known Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory to determine a person’s level of stress – for more information, go to this link:   They found, for example that death of a spouse was the most stressful life event, followed by divorce, separation. a jail term and death of a close family member.

The 7 Steps to completing the Stress Response – according to the Nagoski sisters’ research:

  • Physical movement

Completing the stress response is done most efficiently and effectively by doing physical activity  – simply moving our bodies. This can be absolutely anything that gets our body going whether it is running, dancing, yoga, cycling or gardening. Even a quick run up and down the stairs can be helpful. 

  • Breathing 

It can sometimes be hard to settle ourselves to do this, but breathing deeply and slowly — exhaling for longer than we inhale — reminds your body that it is not under attack. An easy method for deep breathing is box breathing, also known as 4×4 or square breathing. Inhale through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, exhale out of your mouth for four, and hold your breath again for four. Repeat for two minutes.

  • Positive social interactions

Returning to the example of an animal in the wild, it will often return as quickly as possible to the safety of the herd and so as humans we can mimic this by reaching out to another human being – this could be a hug from a loved one, or even something brief and superficial, such as saying “hello” to a neighbour or passer by on the street. It reassures our brain that the world is a safe place.

  • Laughter

Particularly with someone else, laughter helps reinforce social connection and regulate our emotions. Deep belly laughter is a powerful way to release and express the emotions we are keeping inside.

  • Affection

 Whether physical or emotional, whether from a human or an animal, is another great tool to complete the stress cycle.

  • Crying

This is one of our body’s methods for releasing stress and completing the stress cycle. Try playing some music, watching a TV show or movie, reading an article or book — anything that might trigger a good, therapeutic cry.

  • Creative expression

Art, music, dance, using our imagination, can create a space where emotions can be processed and explored.


How do I know I’ve completed the cycle?

It’s like knowing when we are full after a meal or hydrated after a long drink of water on a hot day — our body tells us. we might experience it as a shift in mood or mental state or physical tension, as we breathe more deeply and your thoughts relax. All we need to do is recognise that we feel a small bit better than we felt before we started. Something in our body has changed, shifted in the direction of peace – we have gone down from 9 out of 10, to 4 out of 10. And that’s pretty great.

For more information     for the Burned Out, Fried and Exhausted    Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, D


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See also: What is Burnout?Warning Signs of BurnoutSelf-Care isn’t the Answer!