6 Ways to Move Through Stress & Avoid Burnout
I have good news and bad news for those of you who are navigating high levels of stress right now.
The bad news: eliminating the things causing you stress (these are called ‘stressors’) may not be enough to make you feel better on its own.
Once that work project is handed in, you’ve resolved that argument with your partner, you’ve achieved the promotion you’ve been working for, or the global pandemic is over, you aren’t necessarily going to feel a huge reduction in stress unless it is accompanied by processing your physiological stress response at regular intervals.
The good news: this means you don’t have to wait until the number of stressors in your life reduces in order to feel better! Instead, you can start doing things within your control right now to move through your physiological stress response and reduce the impact it has on your life. More good news for those of you that feel a little time-poor: you only need a couple of minutes of any one of them to start making a difference.
Ultimately, stress is a biological response to a perceived threat. This response is hardwired into us (sorry, you can’t hijack it!). But here’s the crucial bit - our body doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat, such as an attacker running towards us, and a psychological threat, such as having a high workload or arguing with a partner.
Regardless of the stressor, the physiological response is the same which feels uncomfortable and potentially unsafe. In the modern world, the less physical stressors are almost always present in some form and therefore so many of us end up in a state of chronic stress, getting stuck in the heightened physiological response (you’ve probably heard of fight, flight, freeze) because we don’t complete the cycle to return to our natural state and remind our body that we are safe. Eliminating the thing that is causing you stress cannot do this for you!
Here are 6 things that can help you move through your physiological stress response and reduce the risk of getting stuck in chronic stress:
Research suggests this is perhaps the most effective of them all and for those that aren’t into vigorous exercise I have more good news for you - this can be as simple as standing up and shaking your whole body around or dancing to your favourite song. It can be a walk or a yoga class. Anything that gets your body moving will quickly reduce the physiological response.
Every morning I choose a song I’m currently into (usually Taylor Swift, let’s be honest) and I dance and shake my body around for the duration of it. Without fail, I always feel very slightly better for it.
2. Positive social interaction
Any positive social interaction with another human (or even pet), reminds your body it is safe. Again, this doesn’t need to be anything complicated, it can be as simply as telling the DPD driver you hope their day was ok or thanking your friend for something they’ve done recently.
Laughter especially does wonders for completing your stress response cycle, but to my fellow nervous-laughers or those that laugh because they feel they should, I’m sorry to tell you that fake laughter doesn’t cut it for this one. This needs to be whole-hearted belly laughing to work properly. This makes me think of many occasions in school getting the giggles with a friend at a time you know you absolutely should not be laughing but having no control over it.
A consensual and safe hug with someone you know can have the same impact on your stress response as jogging (and let’s be honest, it requires less effort). Multiple pieces of research suggest that a 20 second hug lowers blood pressure and heart rate, has a positive impact on your mood, and increases oxytocin - the hormone linked to social bonding.
I love this one because alongside being a psychological wellbeing coach I am also a photographer and it’s quite satisfying to think one element of my work is an effective method of processing stress.
The idea with using creativity to process stress is that you are taking whatever is going on internally and channelling it into something external - create a painting with your anger, play the guitar with your sadness, dance out your frustration (bonus points for this one because you’re incorporating the ‘movement’ element as well!).
A lot of us take very shallow breaths or even hold our breath when we are stressed as part of our physiological response. Slowing down your breathing and extending your exhale calms your nervous system and signals you are safe. Again, it doesn’t have to be for long. Just two minutes lengthening your breath and focusing on the movement of your abdomen whilst you do it can bring you back to a place that feels more manageable.
This is a physical expression of your emotion which prevents your body from getting trapped in a heightened physiological state when feeling stressed. Often, if you focus on the experience of crying it will end in just a few minutes.
Sources and further information:
Most of this information came from a book by sisters Emily & Amelia Nagoski called Burnout, which I highly recommend.
The Stress Response by Christy Matta
The science of hugging: https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisonescalante/2020/06/09/how-to-give-the-perfect-hug-according-to-science/?sh=fe0b4f65f9f1
Laughter for stress: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456
Creativity for stress:
Ellie Jade, one of our Live Well Champions, is a transformational coach, mental health advocate and freelance photographer. Her core values include creativity, adventure, connection and curiosity.
Find out more about Ellie and her work at @iamelliejade
Photo credit: Kate Sharp Photography