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A View from Here

Exploring Faith and CommunityMacalester Plymouth United Church

October 30, 2020

Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis

I’m excited to report that I’ve been receiving group coaching around balancing productivity, community care, and self-care in the middle of a pandemic. We are in the very beginning stages of our work together so I’m certain I’ll have much more to share as the weeks progress, as even after our very first meeting I have a new idea to share. Our coach introduced us to the concept of the stress cycle last week, and it’s changing the way I approach work and family life already.

The articles about burnout among doctors, parents, therapists, students, etc. are plentiful. The question of what to do about burnout remains. Authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski recently released a book titled Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, and they offer the first compelling take I’ve seen on how to successfully care for ourselves amidst the burnout we are all feeling. They note that our emotional responses are evolutionary. We are designed to respond to stressors with neurological cues that tell us to get out of the situation to maintain our safety. But we aren’t hunter-gatherers running from lions, so getting out often isn’t possible in the ways our bodies need and expect. This can cause us to get stuck in the stress cycle, continually reacting to stress and raising our “resting stress level.” We experience emotional exhaustion, a decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalization. That’s burnout.

There is so much in this pandemic that prevents us from completing the stress cycle. Feeling emotions can be unpleasant and we want to do something to escape instead of feel. We are often in settings where we must put on a brave face, behave professionally, or keep things normal for our kids. We don’t have access to the usual routines that keep our stress levels low. And above all, we have no control over the external sources of stress, though we desperately wish we did.

Many of us, myself included, might think that completing the stress cycle means removing the stressor. But even if that were possible, it wouldn’t actually complete the cycle. Our bodies need a physiological cue to tell us we’re safe. Simply removing or ignoring the stressor doesn’t do anything for our nervous system. So how can we complete the stress cycle? Engaging in self-regulation activities. This looks like deep breathing, a physical activity that gets your blood pumping, a good cry, a big belly laugh, a creative expression activity you enjoy, or anything else that allows you to face an emotion head-on and get your body and brain working together to process it.

If you’re feeling burned out, or you’re worried about burnout heading into the winter, I highly recommend listening to this podcast with Emily and Amelia Nagoski, who explain all of this much better than I just did. And I’ll share that I am completing my stress cycles these days with 10-minute brisk walks on the treadmill in my basement, big snuggles with Phoebe, and singing at the top of my lungs to some old favorite songs. How are you completing the stress cycle lately?