7 ways to unlock the stress cycle

With evidence-based strategies, you can reduce your stress and avoid burnout

Dealing with stress is different from dealing with stressors.

Public safety jobs always involve stress. But some days are worse than others. You’re short-staffed. A call is especially challenging. Or something in your personal life is really weighing on you. People’s bodies feel it all. To feel better, emotionally and physically, and to avoid eventual burnout, you need to deal with your stress.

Regardless of whether you have a day-to-day stressful situation you can’t leave for some time or if the difficult thing or person is out of your life, you need to deal with the stress to feel better physically and emotionally.

Petting a dog or cat for several minutes can reduce your stress level. If you walk a dog at a pace that makes you breathe deeply, the physical activity may also reduce your stress level.
Petting a dog or cat for several minutes can reduce your stress level. If you walk a dog at a pace that makes you breathe deeply, the physical activity may also reduce your stress level. (Photo/Getty Images)

According to Emily Nagoski, PhD; and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, twin sisters and co-authors of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,”  stressors are the external or internal factors that activate the body’s stress response – things the body reads as potential threats. “Stress,” they write, “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these threats.”

The adaptive response is great in the moment if you have to run for your life. But you can’t or shouldn’t run from, say, filling out forms, attending a big-deal meeting, a pediatric cardiac arrest or other things that make your blood rush, your muscles tense, your digestion slow and a number of other physical responses.

Too much stress too often can lead to burnout – the mental and physical state of exhaustion that drains the joy out of your friendships, family relationships or career.

To avoid burnout , you need to complete the stress cycle. (For a convenient printable PDF that lists ways to complete the stress cycle, read through to the end of this article and download it.)

So there you are in the first part of the stress cycle – the part in which your body is more or less saying, “Run!”Here are seven evidence-based ways the Nagoskis say you can use to get from the flight stage to the stage in which your body realizes you are no longer facing a possible threat and it is time to stop being stressed:

  1. Move it. Perform an exercise or activity that makes your body move enough that you breathe deeply. The authors write that 20 to 60 minutes of activity per day helps most people. This is the most efficient strategy for completing the cycle.
  2. Take deep, slow breaths. An exercise: Breathe in for a slow count of five, hold the breath for a slow count of five, exhale for a slow count of 10, and pause for a slow count of five. Do this three times.
  3. Have positive social interactions. The Nagoskis recommend casual, friendly social interactions as a way to signal to your brain that things are OK. So have a nice, quick chat or give someone a compliment.
  4. Share laughter. This means deep, not controlled, laughs such as belly laughs. Even reminiscing about times you have laughed with someone helps.
  5. Connect with a loving presence. Share a warm hug with someone you love and trust for 20 seconds, or a six-second kiss. Or pet a cat or dog for several minutes.
  6. Cry. Grab some tissues and let those feelings out.
  7. Make something. Creative expressions such as writing, crafting art, music or theater create a context that tolerates big feelings.

Stress-busting tips

  • Because completing the stress cycle is physiological, it is important to give your body what it needs and to give it time.
  • Different strategies work better on different days.
  • How do you know if you completed the stress cycle? When you start practicing these strategies, you might notice that you feel just a bit better but not totally relaxed. You might have a backlog of stress. But sometimes people can notice a stress cycle completion pretty easily. The authors write that it is like knowing when you have had enough food.

Already feeling burned out?



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The EMS Burnout Repair Kit series, presented by EMS1 and Zoll, will equip individuals at all levels in EMS with tools for dealing with the primary sources of burnout, helping them emerge as better, happier providers and more complete people.

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