Signaling safety to our bodies

Completing the stress cycle involves more than removing stressors. 

This week felt stressful, from start to finish. When I ended my workday on Monday, I felt tense and tightly wound. Each day, my stress seemed to compound until I ended the day on Friday in tears, feeling completely overwhelmed.

There’s a lot going on in life, but there was nothing really significant that was wrong. I felt overwhelmed by the busyness of my schedule and my workload, but I knew deep down that I could get everything accomplished.

I had a plan to improve the factors contributing to my stress, and I had people supporting and helping me through. Yet, despite my understanding of the reality of my situation, I struggled to shake off the intense stress I was feeling.

For me, stress isn’t always something I notice consciously, at least at first. Instead, I begin to notice “numbing” behaviors that clue me in that I’m avoiding something (a lesson I’ve learned from the Enneagram). I find myself scrolling social media more than normal, I shop online for things that I don’t need, I crave comfort and junk food, and I feel fatigued, longing to go right to bed when I get home. My patience for the people I love in my life is limited, and my fuse is short.

I thought that reducing my stress was simply about mentally processing through my stress and reducing my stressors, until I read the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Dr. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, DMA earlier this year.

Certainly, reducing stressors and developing an emotional understanding of the stress is a component to processing through stress. But one of the major revelations I took away from Burnout has been that my physical body also needs to process through stress in order to complete the stress cycle.

Nagoski explains, “The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies that deal with stressors have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors. To be "well" is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.”

We can signal to our bodies that we’re safe in a number of ways, and end the stress cycle. Crying, physical exercise, laughter, positive social interaction, meditation, or even a primal scream are suggestions Nagoski recommends as tools to help your body complete the stress cycle. Without a completion of the stress cycle, we’re stuck in fight, flight or freeze mode, our body’s response to threats. 

A year ago, feeling the way I felt on Friday, I would have ordered a pizza, picked up some ice cream and cued up Netflix. But, the next day, I’d awaken feeling bloated and stressed. When I self-soothe, self-numb, I’m not doing the hard work I need to do to carry my body and mind through the stress cycle to a state of calm. Self comfort is a temporary fix, and while it’s sometimes a helpful one, it’s no cure.

This week, though, I cried, I ate a healthy meal, I hugged my husband, and I went for a run. That evening, I slept for 9 hours and woke up, showered, and found myself feeling back to normal. Each action, an investment in my health and a release of the stress my body was holding onto that my mind had already processed. 

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Colleen Cook works full-time as the Director of Operations at Vinyl Marketing in Ashland, where she resides with her husband Mike and three young daughters. She's an insatiable extrovert who enjoys finding reasons to gather people.