A recent episode of Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us stopped us in our tracks and ping-ponged across the StyleBlueprint team inboxes, and then on to family and friends. We want to share it with you, too. In the episode, Brené interviews identical twin sisters Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A, authors of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. They discuss the physicality of emotion, the causes of burnout, the physical mayhem stress causes our bodies, and how we can move through this emotional exhaustion to actually heal.
We’ve all felt burned out at one time or another, and perhaps recently more than ever. We are overextended, overcommitted, overwhelmed and exhausted. This conversation unpacks the science behind our emotions and the hurdles and societal pressures that stand between us and our well-being … and how we can fight back.
On their website, Drs. Amelia and Emily Nagoski have a synopsis of their book: “Wellness is not a state of mind, but a state of action. It is the freedom to move through the innate cycles and oscillations of being human — from effort to rest and back, from connection to autonomy and back, from adventure to homecoming and back. But we have been lied to our whole lives about what wellness ‘should’ look like, and rejecting that lie, all those myths about ‘having it all’ and ‘finally achieving lasting peace’ is how we create space in our lives for that free action through the cycle of being human.”
If this doesn’t make you immediately order the book, keep reading.
OUR EMOTIONS ARE PHYSICAL
Our emotions live in our bodies and affect everything we do. That is why they’re called FEELings, Brené points out in the interview. “Emotions are cycles that happen in your body. They are neurological events, and when I say neurological, I mean not just happening in your brain, but your whole nervous system,” Amelia explains. “The intelligence of your body extends to your nervous system from the top of your head to the tip of your toes and also beyond your skin. Emotions are an involuntary neurological response.”
Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion. It can feel like you’re in a tunnel, and you have to make it to the end to find the light. “Emotions have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Emily tells Brené. “A lot of us are taught to believe that if we fix the problem that caused the stress or the emotion, then we will have dealt with the emotion itself.” Turns out, this isn’t the case.
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THE HIPPO EXAMPLE
Emily and Amelia give a fantastic example of these ideas about our brains under stress, the stressor, and getting out of the stress cycle. Imagine a hippo is chasing you, the authors suggest. You run and run, and you finally see someone waving you into their home to help you escape the hippo. You get inside, they lock the door behind you, and the hippo ultimately gives up and walks away. When you look at the stranger who saved your life, you might feel a rush of exhaustion but also an intense joy to be alive and gratefulness for all you have.
“It’s easy to think that it is the hippo going away that made that happen, but it’s not. It’s the running and the connection,” Emily says. “Your body only knows what those behaviors are. Those behaviors are what say to your body, ‘You have escaped from this stressful situation, and your body is now a safe place for you to be.’ It is the behavior; it’s not the change in your environment that triggers the physiological change.”
When you finally finish a huge work presentation, or file your taxes, or send that text to your crush, or bury your 16-year-old dog, the cycle of stress cannot complete itself through reason. We have to do something to tell our minds and show our bodies we are safe again. Here are the authors’ seven concrete ways to end the stress cycle.
7 Ways to End the Stress Cycle
1. ANY PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
According to Amelia and Emily, moving your body is the most efficient way to complete your stress cycle. It can literally be any type of physical activity. Standing up from your computer and shaking your whole body for a few seconds. Dancing around the living room to your favorite song. Hopping on the bike for a virtual spin class. Walking around the block a few times. Think of that runner’s high you feel when you’re giving yourself over to something physical. Whether it’s running, play wrestling with your dogs, or jumping on a trampoline with your kids, physical activity is freeing and lets our bodies know we are celebrating safety.
Most of us truly underestimate the power of breathing. “Breathing down-regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and especially a slow, long breath out,” explains Emily. “All the way to the ends of your abdominal muscles contract. That’s how you know you’re engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to down-regulate the central nervous system.” This is the “gentlest” way to complete the stress response cycle, so if you have survived trauma, abuse, or other adverse childhood experiences, “a great place to start so that you don’t get overwhelmed is just with tuning into your breath,” Emily continues. Even a minute-and-a-half worth of deep, intentional breathing can tell the body it is safe again.
3. POSITIVE SOCIAL INTERACTION
Remember when the stranger helped you escape the hypothetical hippo? You likely felt an overwhelming urge to high-five, hug, and jump up and down with that person. Much like you’d do with nearby fans (pre- and post-pandemic, of course) when your team catches the Hail Mary pass to win the neck-and-neck game, “That natural inclination to connect with other people tells your body that it is somewhere safe,” Emily says. “Even if you are not physically in your actual home, your body can get the feeling of home because it’s with someone who is your home.” It can be as simple as a pleasant interchange of compliments with your barista. “Just that much tells your body the world is a safe place,” Emily says.
“Most laughter is social, posed laughter. It serves a function of lubricating conversations … It can’t be that fake laughter,” Amelia says. “It has to be the slightly embarrassing, mouth hanging open, belly jiggling, uncontrolled, ridiculous laughter that really takes over your body; you can’t stop laughing. That laughter will take you all the way through the end of a stress cycle.” Emily adds that “it can even help just to reminisce with someone about a time that you laughed that way.”
5. THE 20-SECOND HUG
Quoting the Nagoskis’ book, Brené reads, “… research suggests a 20-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood, all of which are reflected in the post-hug increase in the social bonding hormone, oxytocin.”
Emily and Amelia mention it is less about the amount of time and more about it being a tight and equal embracing of your body with someone else’s. “Holding your own center of gravity and staying there, breathing together until you feel the shift in your chemistry … that’s your body going, ‘I have come home to a place of safety … because my body feels safe with this other person pressed against it,'” explains Emily. In these weird, distanced times, hugging the people in your pod often and longer than usual can help tell your body to end a stress cycle.
6. A BIG OL’ CRY
Crying is the perfect example of an effective physical and emotional response. “It’s completing a stress response cycle and letting the emotion go all the way to the end so it’s not getting trapped in your body,” Amelia says. Crying takes some practice. The authors suggest focusing on the physical sensations felt while crying rather than what’s making you cry. “Usually [it] just takes a few minutes,” Emily says. “People are afraid that if they let themselves cry, it will last forever. But if you don’t continue feeding it thoughts about the cause of the stress, really five minutes maybe.”
7. CREATIVE EXPRESSION
The authors bring up the fact that many people go into the arts because they remember that cathartic childhood feeling of taking the thoughts and feelings inside you and putting them out in the world through drawing, or knitting, or sculpting, or designing, or choreographing. “Everything you make that’s made out of your energy is partially made out of you, and it’s made out of whatever experiences you’ve had,” Amelia says. “And so you can knit little booties, and they can be made of your rage, and you can get your rage out of your body by creating something and putting it in a safe place outside of yourself, or maybe you could even do somebody some good.”
What we took away from this episode is that learning the difference between dealing with the stress and dealing with the situation that causes the stress is paramount to healing and avoiding burnout. Just removing stressors isn’t enough. “The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle,” Brené says, quoting Burnout again. “While you’re managing the day’s stressor, your body is managing the day’s stress, and it’s also absolutely essential to your well-being — the way sleeping and eating are essential — that you give your body the resources it needs to complete the stress response cycle that has been activated.”
Now you have seven healthy and science-backed tactics to do just that, and there is more to be uncovered when you read Burnout.
Listen to Brené Brown’s podcast with the authors of Burnout, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A, here.
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