Feeling the COVID Burnout? Strategies to Shake It Off and End the Stress Cycle

Another book recommendation from yours truly and also Brene Brown‘s latest podcast episode.

I read Burnout back in August 2019 (which seems like eons ago!) and enjoyed the Nagoski sisters’ views on burnout. There are many books out there on burnout, stress, and resiliency, but what I appreciated was their education on the importance of completing 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.”

I enjoyed their reference to animals in the wild and how they naturally complete their stress cycle. For example, animals release adrenaline and cortisol after being chased by a predator. They shake their bodies, shudder or repel water as a way to complete their stress cycle and signal to themselves that they are now safe. What about humans? What do we do after we narrowly escape our modern-day predators (e.g., traffic on the way to an important meeting, another day of working from home during a pandemic while playing Zoom monitor to the kids, etc.)

As humans, we also need to find ways to complete our stress cycle! Have you ever had the physical experience of being unable to control overwhelming emotions? Perhaps your lips quivered, or your legs shook involuntarily. This tremor sensation is the body’s most organic method of releasing tension that has become charged within the system. Unfortunately, such tremoring or shaking has been and still viewed as a weakness! We might freeze or suppress the response, maybe resorting to doomscrolling, social media, medication, food, and other substances instead.

“Psychogenic tremors in humans, much the same as the instinctual tremors in animals, is the natural response of a shocked or disrupted nervous system attempting to restore the neuro-physiologic homeostasis of the body’

(Feldman, 2004; van der Kolk, & van der Hart, 1991)

So what are we supposed to do then? According to Burnout and the Nagoski sisters, here are seven ways to complete the stress cycle.

  1. Physical activity: One of the best and fastest ways! Have you ever regretted a workout?! Just move your body. You can “shake it off” to Taylor Swift if you want!
  2. Your crew: Even during this pandemic, how can you stay connected to others?
  3. Breathing: Most of us are engaging in shallow breathing instead of belly breathing. Taking longer breaths will help bring additional oxygen to our brains and move our thoughts from the amygdala (fight or flight response) to the pre-frontal cortex (ablility to make rational decisions).
  4. Laughter: How about some laughter yoga? It might seem silly but could also make you laugh!
  5. Affection: We all know that touch and a warm embrace produces oxytocin, and other feel-good chemicals. But what about during a pandemic?? Well, if you have someone in your quarantine pod- give them a hug! And if not, consider a weighted blanket. There is some research that weighted blankets help with sleep and anxiety also.
  6. Crying: Just let it out! I liked how the Nagoski sisters talk about focusing on the physiological part of crying instead of the thoughts which will help your body release the tensions.
  7. Creative expression: I know a lot of my clients are afraid of diving into creativity and say, “But I’m just not a creative person!” We were all born creative- try to think about what you used to like doing as a kid? What activities made you lose track of time?

Unfortunately, none of us are immune from quarantine fatigue and possible burnout. It’s easy to start to think, “Oh, when x happens, I will feel better,” or “When the kids get to go back to school, working from home will be easier.” It’s a trap… so let’s not get stuck in it. We are probably in “this” for a while, so I appreciated the tips/reminders for my clients (and myself!) on how to literally shake it off.