A few months ago I went to the orthodontist and was asked to fill out some intake paperwork. Among the possible concerns someone might have, I checked off ‘jaw pain’ related to TMJ. When the orthodontist entered the room he asked me if I ever grind my teeth at night. I replied that I do, and it was a habit I’ve had on and off throughout my life.
The orthodontist then asked what my spouse did for work. I replied that he was a busy medical resident, who works A LOT of hours without much flexibility. He then asked, “Do you have kids?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Two children, preschool and kindergarten age.” (At this point we — like most parents — weren’t sure if the kids would be able to go to school in the fall. And we had been bouncing between a million possibilities when it came to childcare.)
Clearly, my orthodontist likes to ask questions… Next up, what did I do during the day? I replied that I took care of the children and also worked as a marriage and family therapist.
“Seeing couples with marriage problems, handling family disputes?,” the orthodontist asked. “Yes,” I replied, still unsure of where the orthodontist was going with this line of questioning. He replied with a smile, “well I can’t imagine why you’re stressed.”
I let out a small laugh and shrugged my shoulders. As I left the office, I couldn’t stop thinking about his assessment. I didn’t think of myself as stressed. But when you lined up the pieces next to each other, it seemed obvious that there was a lot on my shoulders. Not to mention the extenuating circumstances of this year — Covid, an inland hurricane in Iowa, election season, and more.
A Stress Reality Check
In my experience as a therapist, I see people use up a lot of their mental and emotional energy trying to convince themselves that they’re not stressed, or that they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. We tell ourselves things like, ‘other people have it worse,’ or ‘I should be able to handle this,’ and even, ‘I should just get over this.’ Or — if you’re like me — you deny the stress is there all together until you’re hit over the head with it.
Stress is undoubtedly a part of life — it is a natural part of the human experience. However, we know from research that long-term stress can have negative effects on the human body and mind.1
Completing the Stress Cycle
In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, sisters Emily (PhD) and Amelia (DMA) Nagoski outline how we often experience the end of a stressful event, but our bodies and brain still need to complete the “stress cycle”. In other words, the difficult thing we went through ends but we still need to finish feeling the feelings so that we can move forward in a positive way.
They explain further, “The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will, unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle.” The stressor is the event or task that activates the stress response. Completing a project for work, a medical diagnosis, or the recent loss of a loved one are all examples. Stress is the response that follows, which could include: irritation, agitation, exhaustion, insomnia, sadness, crying spells, and more.
Have you ever had the experience of pushing through a difficult project and immediately after it finished you got sick and needed to stay in bed for a couple of days? This is evidence that the stressor may have ended, but our bodies are still responding to the stress.
Positive Coping Skills for Overcoming Stress
So how do we manage stress in the moment, in order to negate the potential consequences of long-term stress? The Nagoski sisters outline the following techniques to complete the stress cycle.
Physical activity has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to take control of our body’s “fight or flight” response system and put it to work for ourselves. It is most effective when it is something we truly enjoy!3
Some people love a good run, while others prefer dancing in their living room with their kids, and others prefer yoga. Even standing at your desk and stretching, or doing some mindful walking in the middle of the day, can be beneficial to your health. Pick something you love and give yourself a few minutes to get active.
Laughter is one of the most enjoyable ways to overload our brain with happy hormones, such as endorphins.4 Sometimes I like to ask clients, when was the last time you really laughed? Like a belly shaking, snort through your nose, can’t breathe laughing fit?
If it’s been a while since you last laughed, think about what has really made you laugh in the past? Can you think of a favorite comedy, a friend you like to be around that always makes you laugh, or an activity that really helps you loosen up? Seek out opportunities to genuinely laugh and get those happy hormones activated in order to alleviate and complete the stress response cycle.
Affection has the benefit of lowering our stress response and building connection with others, releasing the bonding hormone oxytocin.5 My husband and I will sometimes joke at the end of a long day that we need a “boost for our immune system” and will give each other a long hug in response. Ultimately, a run or laughter might hijack the elevated emotions you’re feeling — but affection will lower those stress hormones to the point of relaxation and safety.
Crying is sometimes explained as “energy leaving the body.” It can be extremely beneficial to our emotional health to let out pent up emotions and tension. If you’ve ever had a good cry you have probably felt the ‘emotional hangover’ afterwards that is evidence of our body literally letting go of stressful emotions.
Crying is an excellent example of being able to process emotions, and feel better, despite the stressor still being present. No issue is ‘fixed’ or ‘solved,’ but we can still feel emotionally settled and move forward with confidence.
Finally, creative expression is a beautiful way to channel the negative emotions into something outside of ourselves. When we paint, photograph, write, cook, or use any other form of creative expression — we are taking the emotion inside of us and putting it into something external. This can help us move through and process emotions, leading to the end of the stress cycle.
Each of the suggestions listed above are positive coping skills for lowering the stress hormones in our brain and improving our emotional regulation.2
Completing the Stress Cycle Even When the Stressor is Still Around
The good news about the stress cycle is that we can learn how to complete the stress cycle even if the stressor itself hasn’t ended. So, if we are in the middle of a big project that may take weeks or months or a difficult period of a relationship that we know won’t get solved quickly, we can utilize these skills at the end of a long day to shake off the negative effects of stress. ‘Shaking off’ the stress will enable us to get a great night of sleep and start the next day refreshed and able to do it all again.
Due to my stress related tooth-grinding habit, I know when I wake up in the morning if I have been hanging onto stress in my body. Look for the cues that your body and brain give you (for example: tense shoulders, fitful sleep, headaches, or irritability). To manage the mental and emotional toll of stress, take a moment to truly recognize and acknowledge any stress in your life. Allow this emotion to be present, then make a plan to complete the stress cycle. Remember the tools above: physical exercise, laughter, affection, crying, or creative expression.
Completing the stress response cycle will allow for more positive moments, connection, and joy in the midst of a difficult season of life. If you are feeling like you cannot let go of stress no matter what you do, please reach out, we are here to help you strengthen your ability to combat stress and work towards mental wellness.
For more information on the stress cycle, you can find the book referenced in this article, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, at Amazon.com.
Or you can check out the podcast Unlocking Us with Brene Brown, episode from October 14th, 2020. In this episode, Brene is joined by Emily and Amelia Nagoski to talk about burnout and how to complete the stress cycle.
- Dhabhar, F.S. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res 58, 193–210 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12026-014-8517-0
- Mullen, S.P., Olson, E.A., Phillips, S.M. et al. Measuring enjoyment of physical activity in older adults: invariance of the physical activity enjoyment scale (paces) across groups and time. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 8, 103 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-8-103