How to Recover from Stress: Manage your Stress Cycle before it leads to Burnout
Stress is your body’s natural response to a (consciously or unconsciously) perceived threat. Without it, you would die - so in an of itself, stress isn’t bad. But when stress becomes chronic, it can have serious consequences for your health and lead to burnout.
Understanding the stress cycle and learning how to manage and complete it will reduce the negative impact of stress on your mind and body, and reduce the chance of burning out. In this article, we'll explore the science behind the stress cycle and provide practical tips for managing stress in your daily life.
Understanding the stress cycle.
The stress cycle is a natural response to perceived threats or challenges, which can be seen in all animals. You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response, though today it is generally considered to have at least 2 other options - freeze & fawn.
If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary where a cheetah is chasing a gazelle, you have seen the flight response in action!
Your body goes through something similar when you encounter a stressful situation, or your subconscious perceives a threat to your safety. Your body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare you for a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response.
If you were still an early human, these responses would keep you alive. Even today, they can be helpful in a short term situation.
If you saw a masked person armed with a knife running towards you, then the instinct to run away
as fast as possible would be ideal. Less so if you experience a combative colleague in a meeting challenging your report findings and end up freezing rather than being able to calmly refute their critique.
The automatic stress response to threat isn’t a problem. Your body is designed to react to stressors, take appropriate action and then to shake it off and recover once the situation has passed.
In animals, that usually does look like shaking. In children, it might look like crying or shouting, maybe even tantruming or lashing out.
But as adults, we have learned to “behave properly” and to “control ourselves” - so we tend not to allow the stress cycle to complete. We bury our responses, grit our teeth or tense our shoulders and get on with our day. Later on, we may complain to our friends or partners, or look to recover with a glass of wine.
That leads to an accumulation of incomplete stress cycles in the body. Because we never fully complete the cycle, our hormonal baselines never return to their unstressed levels. Our baseline is therefore not reestablished. Over time, this can lead to the negative effects of stress we’re used to hearing about such as irritability, anxiety, depression, or physical health impacts like high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain or insomnia (among others) and eventually, if chronically unmanaged, can lead to burnout.
So what can you do to recover from stress and beat burnout before it happens?
Recognize when you are stressed
One of the most important steps in breaking the stress cycle is recognizing when you are stressed to begin with. For many of us, we have so many incomplete stress cycles that our baseline levels of stress hormones have crept up over time. We think we’re fine. It’s normal that we sleep badly, are impatient, struggle to think clearly or remember everything. We’re busy people!
For most of us, it’s safe to assume that you probably are stressed.
The next piece is to inventory your triggers. These are the situations, people, or events that cause you to feel stressed. Once you identify your triggers, you can start to develop strategies for managing them.
For example, if you know that getting the kids ready for school and out the door on time makes you stressed, you can work on your mindset about it, start the process earlier, or incentivise them to be the first one ready - and you can plan for some time after they have gone for you to complete the cycle and return to your baseline state.
Complete the stress cycle.
Luckily, your body already knows exactly how to complete stress cycles. You just have to let it!
To complete the stress cycle, and avoid the build up of unmanaged stress which is burnout, you simply need to allow your body and mind return to a state of calm and relaxation after experiencing stress. It doesn’t have to take a long time, particularly if you deliberately plan some activity to help.
Here are 5 effective ways to complete a stress cycle:
Exercise: Whatever activity that you enjoy, such as walking, running, swimming, dancing, or yoga. Even just a full body shake will do the trick. Keep going until you feel the release of pent-up tension.
Breathing: Take slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. You get extra brownie points if you can make the exhale twice as long as the inhale, but don’t worry if you can’t. Just breathing slowly and deeply is enough.
Get support: Spend a few moments with your feet firmly on the floor (whether you are seated or standing) and your back fully supported by the wall or by the back of a chair. Bring your attention to the support you feel, and move through your body tensing and releasing the muscles.
Physical touch: Hug someone you are close to, while standing up and supporting your own weight. Feel your arms around them and their arms around you. Keep holding the hug until you feel the tension releasing from your body. That will be a longer hug that you’re used to, so maybe best to warn them first!
Attack a pillow (or another soft inanimate object): Let it all out. Punch away until you are exhausted. Probably best not done in public…
There are many other ways - experiment with different techniques to find what works best for you.
For more ideas, you can get my 20 strategies to feel better instantly in your inbox by subscribing here