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Break the loop: Finding ways to release stress


Recently, I’ve been following the work of Dr Emily Nagoski, who writes extensively about burnout, stress, and other wellbeing topics.

I’ve found the way she talks about stress has been a lightbulb moment for me, and I wanted to share it with you.

Most of us will know the basics of stress – that it is an evolutionary response. We see a threat (e.g. a lion), have a physiological and psychological response (fight, flight, or freeze), and then, I guess, hope our brain has made a good choice (to run, rather than freeze).

Most of us also know that while this stress response was helpful when lions were a daily threat to our survival, very few of us encounter lions today. Yet, we still respond the same to perceived threats – survival-based or not.

Today’s threats are wide and varied, and work plays a big role. Our recent State of Workplace Wellbeing Survey found that 74% of respondents believe that over the past three months, people in their organisation experienced high levels of stress and/or burnout.

Dr Nagoski shares that when we experience a stress response, we need to move through the stress sequence. The sequence comprises three key stages: 1. stressor, 2. activation, and 3. release.

The stressor is the pressure or trigger that makes us feel upset or distressed (e.g. conflict). The activation is our body’s response to the stressor, psychologically and physically (e.g. racing heart). The release is when our body returns to its normal state, which is hopefully a calm state.

This is why, she explains, telling someone to just ‘calm down’ doesn’t work. They need proactive strategies that will help them move through the various phases.

I’ve started thinking about this model as being like the zaps you get when you touch a low-voltage electric fence.

If I touch the fence and it has electricity going through it (stressor), I experience a zap (activation). I then have energy inside me that I now need to burn (release).

I can cope with one small zap, but if I keep coming up against the fence and receiving zap after zap, then that’s not going to make me feel all that great and I’ll have more energy inside of me than my body can cope with. So, like electricity, I need to burn off all of that energy to complete the stress sequence. Now ‘burn off’ might be going for a run, or it might be something slow paced – both achieve the same goal.

With that in mind, I’ve started thinking about my normal coping strategies as ways to burn that energy. I already knew strategies like hiking or yoga were helpful, but now I have a better understanding of what I’m trying to achieve.

It’s been a bit of a game-changer for me in how I think about and manage stress.

What works for you when it comes to managing stress at work?
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