By Susan Winter Fledderus
Stress seems unavoidable these days as we ride out the holidays in the midst of a pandemic. More than ever, it is important to dig deeper than the popular strategies for coping with stress to incorporate essential forms of stress management and deal with the impact of stress on our bodies.
A lot of our efforts to manage stress are typically aimed in two ways: eliminate as many stressors as possible, and find coping strategies to help us get through.
Eliminating stressors might look like delegating jobs, cancelling certain commitments, planning simpler events or meals, and avoiding overbooking our already busy schedules. These strategies are important to keeping life manageable and should be used as needed, but aren’t enough on their own. There are so many stressors, like pandemics, job stress, or family conflict, that none of us asked for, and can’t simply be eliminated. We just have to cope with them.
The coping strategies we most often hear about include things aimed at trying to help us feel better, indulging ourselves with enjoyable things to counteract the negative things or rewarding ourselves for getting through. Whether a calming bath or a mug of special tea, or a bag of chips while watching Netflix, such common coping strategies are pleasant, but don’t always cut it.
Managing stress effectively often requires a bit more. There are two additional categories of stress management that are key to living well and reducing the effects of stress in our bodies, lives and relationships.
The first has to do with completing the stress cycle. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, remind us that when we experience stress, we carry it physically in our bodies.
Because our physiological stress response has a beginning and an end, we need to deal with the stress by completing the stress cycle. Stress is the neurological and physiological responses our body has to help us escape from potential threats. It primes our muscles to act—fight, flight, or freeze—until we have a cue that we are safe and can relax. This cue has to be more than a cognitive one: knowing you finished filing your taxes isn’t enough to tell your body that the stress is over. Also, because we experience stress most days and can never eliminate all the stressors, we need to be completing the stress cycle daily.
The Nagoskis suggests the following ways to complete the stress cycle:
- Physical Activity: the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle. Walk, run, swim, dance, or anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply. Physical activity is the message that tells your body you have survived the threat and are now safe. For most people, 20 to 60 minutes a day works to release the stress.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: If you are unable to exercise, you can instead lie down and progressively tense and release every muscle, starting from your feet and working up to your face. Clench the muscles for a slow count of 10 while visualizing beating the living daylights out of the stressor you are dealing with, allowing your body to respond with your heart beating faster and fists clenching until you feel a satisfying shift.
- Breathing: deep slow breaths downregulate the stress response. Ensure the out breath is long and slow and goes all the way to the end so your belly contracts. Breathing works best when the stress isn’t too high, or to get through a time of heightened stress that you can work out physically later. One strategy: breathe in for a slow count of 5, hold for 5, exhale for a slow count of 10, and pause for 5; repeat three times.
- Positive Social Interaction: casual, friendly social interaction is a cue that the world is a safe place. Having even a brief chat with the cashier or exchanging friendly greetings with strangers on the bus can help.
- Laughter: laughing deeply with a big belly laugh, particularly with others, helps us bond and regulates our emotions.
- Affection: many forms of affection help to shift our hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and improve our moods. Hugging until we feel relaxed, usually after 20-seconds or longer, or a mindful, lingering kiss with someone we love and feel safe with will create that shift. Interacting affectionately with pets also helps to complete the cycle. Tuning in to our spiritual connections with a power greater than ourselves can also help us feel safe, loved and connected.
- A Big ol’ Cry: Having a good cry doesn’t change the circumstances, but it does complete the stress cycle. Watching a tear-jerker movie also allows your body to go through the emotion along with the characters on screen.
- Creative Expression: music, painting, theatre, story-telling and so many other forms of creative expression are all ways to process big emotions.
The Nagoskis remind us that completing the stress cycle doesn’t happen in our minds, but in our bodies; it is a physiological shift. We know we have completed the cycle when our body releases physical tension, our breath deepens, our mood shifts, and our thoughts relax.
The Nagoskis’ book offers many more strategies and resources to manage stress and avoid burnout, from helping to address “human giver syndrome” to learning how to manage our inner critic. They explore how to make good decisions about when to persist and use intentional problem solving with stressors we can control, and when to change our expectations or back out of situations in response to stressors we can’t control.
This is the second area of managing stress, which is the often hard and messy work of creating long-term wellness in our lives. As this Facebook user Nepenthe shares, “self-care is often a very unbeautiful thing” that looks more like making a spreadsheet of our debt and changing some of our unhealthy daily habits and relationship patterns. It involves the hard work and daily investment of building a life we will thrive in. “It is becoming the person you know you want and are meant to be. Someone who knows that salt baths and chocolate cake are ways to enjoy life – not escape from it.” (Brianna Wiest)
Digging deeper than the popular strategies for coping with stress to incorporate essential forms of self-care and care for our bodies is a beautiful gift we can give ourselves this holiday season.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network