Most of us know that stress is an evolutionary response designed to protect us from hungry tigers and other dangers in the natural world. But there’s more to the story than just the chase – in fact, what happens after we’ve survived the threat might actually be more important.
That’s according to co-author of Burnout Amelia Nagoski. Speaking on The Food Medic podcast with Dr. Hazel Wallace, she explained that stress “is a physiological cycle… It’s made of neurotransmitters and electrical signals that we have evolved to develop to protect ourselves from things that are a threat. It was not developed for 21st-century life.”
And the most important part of the ‘evolutionary adaptation’ Nagoski talks about arguably happens after we’ve run away from the lions.
“You run and you leave and you jump and you escape… [and then] you are safe. You have used up the entire stress response. You’ve been through all those chemicals and electrical signals are done, and you feel elated and powerful and the sun shines brighter. You love your friends and family and you are glad to be alive.
“And when you have that feeling, it’s because you’ve reached all the way through the actual physiological cycle that is the nature of stress that happens mostly below the level of conscious awareness.”
We also need to close this ‘stress cycle’ in the modern world. “That same cycle is initiated in us today by heavy traffic, when we’re paying our taxes, or in line at the grocery store… we feel our heart racing and our breath getting deeper and our hands shaking.
“But because it is good for society for us to be polite and quiet, and wait patiently and the moment passes and then we don’t feel the stress in our body anymore so we think it’s gone. But it’s not, you haven’t completed it,” says Nagoski.
Be honest: when did you last leave your office feeling elated, knowing you’d completed your ‘stress cycle’ and were fully out of your fight or flight mode, ready to relax? Hardly ever, Nagoski bets. most of us go from feeling completely overwhelmed at our desks to just… finishing work. Thinking about that, it’s no wonder we feel on edge and anxious a lot of the time.
How to complete the stress cycle
Maybe you recognize that feeling of holding onto stress even though the immediate panic is over. But how do you complete it for that feeling of relationship?
According to Nagoski, exercise is one of the most powerful ways of completing the stress cycle. “When you’re being chased by the hippo, what do you do? You run. So physical activity is the most effective way for most people to complete the stress response cycle,” she says.
Then there’s sleep. “The next most basic physical activity that people need access to is sleep… people always say ‘sleep on it and you’ll feel better in the morning’, but I thought, Why? Because my problem is not going to go away in the morning. But while you’re sleeping, your body heals from the work it did that day and your mind processes not just what it did that day, but also a lot of stuff from your whole past,” explains Nagoski.
The third most important way to close the stress cycle and feel a surge of happiness is through connection. She referenced the ’20 second hug’ and ‘six-second kiss’ theories by relationship therapist John Gottman. “There are actually studies that show a hug with someone you love and trust enough… you will feel a shift where your body says alright, I’m home, I’m safe, I’m cared for and protected.”
The beauty of being able to close the stress cycle is that we can better handle situations when we are still going through them. “You don’t have to wait for the thing that caused your stress to go away before you start to feel better… you can still do the things that complete the stress response cycle, even if you can’t get rid of the thing that caused your stress,” says Nagoski.
Perhaps the idea of actively having to ‘come down’ from your heightened state of stress feels unnecessary or like another thing to worry about. But Nagoski makes a great point about why moving through states of stress, elation and rest are important, saying wellness is a state of action. “Wellness is the freedom to oscillate through all the cycles of being human, from effort to rest and from autonomy to connection.”