Breaking the barriers between you and your wellbeing

Written by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA Monday 10 August 2020
Here’s an understatement: burnout is highly prevalent. But completing the stress-response cycle and finding a place of wellness? Almost unheard of.
Hands holding a chainlink fence

You’ve heard the usual advice over and over: exercise, green smoothies, self-compassion, colouring books, mindfulness, bubble baths, gratitude...You’ve probably tried a lot of it. Sometimes it helps, at least for a little while. But then the kids are struggling in school or our partner needs support through a difficulty or a new work project lands in our laps and we think, “I’ll do the self-care thing as soon as I finish this”.

The problem isn’t that we aren’t trying. The problem isn’t that we don’t know how. The problem is, the world has turned “wellness” into yet another goal everyone “should” strive for.

The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies to deal with the stressor have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors. Stress is not bad for you; being stressed is bad for you.

Let’s start by differentiating our stress from our stressors.

Stressors are what activate the stress response in your body. There are external stressors: work, money, family, time, cultural norms and expectations, experiences of discrimination; and less tangible, internal stressors like self-criticism and body image.

Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter one of these threats. It’s an evolutionarily adaptive response that helps us cope with the stressors: your brain activates a generic “stress response,” a cascade of neurological and hormonal activity that initiates physiological changes to help you survive.

Due to social norms, safety, professionalism, and more, there are now so many ways to deny, ignore, or suppress your stress response. For all these reasons and more, most of us are walking around with decades of incomplete stress response cycles simmering away in our chemistry, just waiting for a chance to complete.

Remember, your body has no idea what “resolving an interpersonal conflict through rational problem-solving” means. It knows, though, what jumping up and down means: physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is, therefore, the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.

  • Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor, that doesn't mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself. And you have to deal with the stress – to “complete the cycle” – or it will slowly kill you.
  • Affection – a six-second kiss, a twenty-second hug, six minutes of snuggling after sex, helpless laughter – are social strategies that complete the cycle, along with creative self-expression – writing, drawing, singing, whatever gives you a safe place to move through the emotional cycle of stress.
  • “Wellness” is the freedom to move fluidly through the circles of being human. Wellness is thus not a state of being; it is a state of action.

Visit CMI’s mental health and wellbeing hub has more information on how to identify and alleviate stress, how to spot signs of burnout, and how to look after yourself during lockdown and beyond.

 Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA

Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA

This is a lightly edited extract from Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. The book was published by Penguin Random House in 2019.

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