Completing the Stress Cycle

Prior to becoming a mom in the summer of 2018, I really had no idea what chronic stress actually felt like. It's not that I hadn't ever experienced stress- I have encountered many stressors over the years- completing a Master’s program, trying to figure out how to pay rent and bills on a tight income, having a wedding called off a month before the big day… I have definitely experienced stress. But that was acute stress. Chronic stress is different- it is experienced over a prolonged period of time. Something about this new role as a mother has created this overwhelming feeling of stress, anxiety, and burnout over the last few years and this chronic stress is taking its toll.

When you look up strategies to relieve stress, what do you inevitably come across? Suggestions like go take a bubble bath, go for a walk, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods usually come up. While these strategies may help to a point, the feeling of stress and the actual stressors will start to slowly creep back in. When I would attempt some form of self-care in the early months of motherhood, I would, without a doubt be needed again by the baby, or my spouse, or the cats. Or, when I wasn’t needed, my mind would shift to all the things that I should be doing with that free time. I should be getting some work done. I should be doing the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I should put on a load of laundry. Ugh. And then the feeling of stress would rear its ugly head again and I would be back at square one. A big ball of stress.

I was working with a client not too long ago who perfectly described what motherhood looked like. She described it as standing at the stove with a few pots on the burner, carefully observing each pot to ensure the contents didn’t overflow or burn. But then someone comes up with another pot to add to the stove. And another. And another. And another. And the line of pots keeps coming. But not only do you have to coordinate and prioritize which pots go on the stove when, but now the phone is ringing. And someone is crying. And the dog just threw up on the carpet. And someone is knocking on the door. AND IT JUST KEEPS COMING. And all you want to do is just sit on the floor and cry because it is just too much. It is too damn much for one person to have to do it all.

Now, not every day may be like this. And not everyone’s experience of motherhood/parenthood may feel like this either… but so many mothers that I talk to on a regular basis feel this sense of overwhelm and burnout while trying to do it all. Be the good mom. Be the high-performing worker. Be the sexy wife. Be the great friend. Be the great daughter. Whatever it might be, the expectation is that we do it all. And that we do it well with a smile on our face.

So when we are told by well-meaning friends and family to go take some time for ourselves, what can we do that will actually help that feeling of stress and burnout and will also address the chronic stress we are experiencing on a daily basis? We complete the stress cycle. A friend and former colleague of mine sent me a book recommendation. She said that this book changed the way she talks about stress with those that she works with. I was intrigued because her and I have similar backgrounds and approaches to how we talk about stress and burnout with our clients. So, I decided to check out the book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I knew this book was just what I needed when the very first paragraph of the introductions says:

From there, I was hooked. What I read over the next couple hundred pages gave me a better understanding of how to address stress in my life, while also finding more realistic ways to approach stress when working with others.

In the first chapter, the authors dive right into the topic of stress. They explain that dealing with the stress you are experiencing is a completely different process than dealing with the stressor. You need to complete the stress cycle in order to deal with your stress. I have to admit, I had to read and re-read that part of the book several times. So often I have done the self-care strategies to help me handle the stress and the stressor, but never really feel like I had accomplished anything. How could I have completely forgotten to complete the stress cycle? When you are experiencing stress (when you are in flight, fight, or freeze mode) you feel the cortisol coursing through your body. Maybe your heart is pounding. Your muscles feel tight. Your stomach feels funny. Your breath quickens. Whatever your signs and symptoms are, you experience something while stressed. Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain:

Ugh. How many of us are walking around, day after day, with all of these systems in our bodies never getting the message that we are safe? That things will be okay.

So how can we go about completing this stress cycle? Some of the strategies the authors explain are strategies that I have used for myself in the past, but seemed to have completely forgotten about (or avoided) since having my son. The first strategy that they talk about doing is some sort of physical activity for about 20-60 minutes, enough movement that it gets you breathing deeply. They say movement is so beneficial because it, “tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live.” (p.15). Reading about how physical activity is the most efficient way to completing the stress response cycle got me thinking about my own physical activity. Prior to my son being born, I loved going to the gym. You would find me in there before work 5 days a week, getting my body moving and heart pumping. Then when the baby arrived, doing any sort of physical movement seemed daunting. In the early months, my body was still healing from pregnancy and childbirth. Then as time went on, I didn’t seem to have the energy to do any sort of activity level that would leave me breathing deeply, especially not for 20 minutes! Recently, however, my body has been giving me signals that it is craving this type of movement and intensity. It seems my body is trying to get me to complete the stress cycle that I have felt stuck in for so long…

The other strategies that Emily and Amelia Nagoski go on to suggest as strategies to complete the stress cycle include:

· Deep breathing- Doing deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths. They explain that deep breathing is the most gentle way to unlock the trauma and stress in our body.

· Positive social interaction- having interactions with others (big or small) can have a profound impact on us, reminding us that we are safe in the world.

· Laughter- deep belly laughs, especially with other people, helps build social connection while also regulating our emotions.

· Affection- experiencing a deeper connection with someone that you love and care for. This affection can be in the form of a 20-second hug, giving you a boost of oxytocin.

As I read about these other strategies, it became very apparent how much I was lacking in the last three. Deep breathing has always been my go-to. I learned that early on as a young athlete, successfully utilizing it throughout my personal and professional lives. But the other three, positive social interaction, laughter, and affection…now those have definitely been missing (especially in the time of Covid). Motherhood can feel so isolating (even more so when you live in a small, rural town), that having those interactions can seem so few and far between. You may not even notice the attempts at positive social interactions because you are tending to a crying baby, avoiding a complete meltdown by your toddler in public, or are so emotionally and physically depleted you don’t even make eye contact with those around you. And lately, it seems even more difficult to connect with others when wearing face masks out in public. But when you are feeling so stressed and frazzled it is tough to make those connections with others. Even tougher to have those deep belly laughs. And to want affection. One of the things I know I have experienced (along with others moms out there, too) is feeling so touched-out by having your baby/toddler constantly touching you that when someone else tries to give you a hug, hold your hand, a kiss, it makes your skin crawl and you want to rip their head off for even considering touching you. But instead of avoiding affection and connection, maybe that is exactly what I need to help cycle through the feeling of stress??

Once you have completed the stress cycle, your body lets you know. You feel it. You can recognize a shift in the quality of your thoughts. A shift in the way your body feels. And once you have found your strategy for handling the stress, it is also important to deal with the stressor. In next week's post, I will share what I have learned about dealing with the stressors.

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

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