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7 ways to unlock the stress cycle

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

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Petting a dog or cat for several minutes can reduce your stress level.

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Dealing with stress is different from dealing with stressors. [Download a convenient printable PDF that lists ways to complete the stress cycle at the top right-hand corner of this article.]

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.

According to Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., 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, 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.

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.

Fill out the form at the top right-hand corner of this page to download a PDF that describes ways to complete the stress cycle.

Leila Merrill served as an assistant editor for FireRescue1 and EMS1. Merrill has worked as a writer, editor, copy editor, digital producer, journalist and communications professional for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and other companies. She double-majored in English and communications at Trinity University.