Head of School Blog Post

How do we manage stress – Completing the stress response cycle

One of the things that keeps me awake at night is thinking about the heavy stress that students, teachers, and families are under during this intense pandemic time. With no end in sight, I am worried about burnout. It seems like we are all working double the amount of time just to keep ourselves going. I have been reflecting on how we can prevent this burnout.

I was excited when I saw, and then listened to a recent episode on Brene Brown's podcast, Unlocking Us. On the podcast, Brene speaks with Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski about what causes burnout, what it does to our bodies, and how we can move through the emotional exhaustion. Counterintuitively, Drs. Nagoski share from their work that we need to fully experience and complete what is stressing us, rather than remove the stress (which we are usually not able to do), so that we can move on.

In their book on the subject, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, the Nagoskis write about what is called the "stress response cycle" that includes a beginning, middle and end. A stress event, or even chronic stress, has a cycle - the introduction of the stressor, our response (fight, flight or freeze) and, they stress (no pun intended) a resolution of the stress. Too often, perpetual stress results when we don't have the opportunity to feel resolution. On the podcast, the Nakoskis explain that resolution does not mean that the stress is removed. Like our experience in a pandemic, the stressor continues unresolved for days, weeks or months. 

To prevent burnout we need to take active steps to trigger the completion of the stress response cycle at the end of our days to give ourselves space and comfort. The Nagoskis offer a number of strategies to complete the cycle:

  • Exercise: They believe physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress cycle.
  • Breathing: Particularly, deep, slow breaths trigger the end of a stress cycle.
  • Positive Social Interaction: The more social interaction we can have, even through Zoom and even if it is very casual returns us to a well regulated place.
  • Laughter: Simply laughing can bring us to complete the stress response cycle.

In the current environment, we cannot remove the stress we are facing. The Nakoskis teach us that in order to prevent burnout, we can complete the stress cycle through some very basic, but essential, strategies each day.

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