How to avoid burnout by completing cycles of emotion

Let me start by saying that not all stress is bad. A very small amount of stress can be beneficial and motivating and can push you to do better. Historically, the adrenaline rush that came from the amygdala when you found yourself in a stressful situation caused us to freeze, fight or flee, and in doing so, saved our lives.

I’m also not suggesting that people in general actively pursue, or invite, stress in. Or that we all have our hands on our own stress dial which either turns up or turns down the number of stressors that we encounter in our daily lives. I mean, why would we dial that %#¥€ up?

There is, however, evidence that suggests people can become somewhat addicted to stress; to the “pain-body”. And it may be because there exists today a certain culture of martyrdom and valiance in being perpetually busy. People who do too much are never seen in the same negative light as people who do too little.

But would people buy into all of this and allow this culture to continue if they knew the effect it was having on their bodies?

Let’s take a look beyond the superficial, commonplace, easily-overlooked toll that stress takes on people. Past the overthinking and the insomnia, the fatigue and the short tempers. Let’s delve deeper into what else stress is doing to us. Especially when that stress is not resolved.

I recently listened to Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us where she interviewed the authors of Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle. What I took from listening to this interview was not so much about avoiding stress, but more about how to feel your feelings and how to move through them.

It was an eye-opener to me to consider that feelings continue to exist in the body. That emotions have a direct impact on your physical health. It was a revelation to hear that people are not thinking beings who occasionally feel, but feeling beings who occasionally think. Yes- you heard that right- our emotions impact everything.

This means that, to tame stress, you don’t just need to deal with whatever it was that triggered that stress (let’s face it, often these things are out of our control anyway). You need to bring closure to the emotion that the stressor created in your body.

“What?!” I hear you say, “Stress is stored in your body even after the stressors have been taken away!?” Yep. And it metastasises. It creates heart disease, IBS, high blood pressure, just to name a few.

The notion of dealing with your emotions is not new to me. Counsellors and therapists have made a career out of allowing people to “complete the cycle” of their feelings. But, even knowing this, how many times have I expected people to “let it go” and “just move on” because the problem was fixed!? Too many. And what this does is force people to shove their feelings down, try to forget them, to bottle them up and leave them perpetually unresolved.

Some people at this point may be thinking “so what? I can handle it” but what they might not realise is that this unresolved stress is not just hurting you, it’s hurting the people around you too.

The book recommends we think of emotions as a tunnel. A tunnel that we can get stuck in. This is particularly the case if your job is to serve others. When much of your daily life is about taking care of the needs of others. Where you can suffer from “human giver syndrome”.

We need to purge our bodies of stored stress. Including trauma. You can start by accepting your daily response to stressors as the best you could do at the time. If your body jumped to fight mode and you lashed out, accept that. If it instead chose freeze and your mind went blank and you didn’t say anything at all, accept that too. Don’t feel shame for your body’s natural responses and attempts to bring you to safety. If you keep reliving the stressors in your mind- wishing you had done/said something different- you are triggering more and more stress to take hold.

Next, you need to complete the cycle of moving through the stress. There are many ways to do this, but the best way is through physical activity. Go for a walk, put on some upbeat music and dance, stretch out your limbs, do yoga. Just move your body.

Breathing is effective too. Meditate, be mindful and be still. This will down-regulate your nervous system. Seeking out positive social interactions with trusted friends and family will also help you to take strides in the right direction. Communicating happily with anyone, in fact, will help to push you through the tunnel. Laughter and crying (or, if you’re like me, laughing until you cry) also help to bring an end to the stress cycle, as does affection. A big hug does wonders for the body. And, my favourite- creative expression. It’s why I keep this blog, after all. Take your broken heart and turn it into art. Throw yourself into your hobbies.

How will you know that the cycle is complete? That you’ve come out the other end of the tunnel? You’ll feel lighter, your body will have less aches and pains, you’ll sleep better, you’ll wake up more refreshed. You’ll feel like something in your body has shifted in the direction of peace.

You’ll live to fight another day.


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