In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD & Amelia Nagoski, DMA explain,
“Emotions are cycles that happen in your body. They are neurological events, not just happening in your brain, but occurring in your whole nervous system....they are an involuntary neurological response. They have a beginning, middle, and an end.”
As someone who works in emotions, the idea that emotions have a beginning, middle, and end is a conceptualization that I had never considered.
Emotions are, in essence, electro-chemical events. This cascade of electrical synapses and chemical messengers that travel between our neurotransmitters are not reserved for the brain. Emotions impact close to every system in our body. In fact, we have more serotonin receptors (the neurotransmitters associated with our mood) in our GI system than we do in our brain! That old expression "trust your gut" is based in physiology. Our gut responds to our emotions.
Understanding emotions as electro-chemical events has been perhaps the most helpful use of my degree in chemistry.
Emotions are all encompassing, and when we are experiencing big emotions, it can feel like a tidal wave. Call it mindfulness, call it meta-cognition, but whatever you call it, pulling back and consciously remembering that our emotional experiences are series of reactions happening in our bodies on the cellular level, can help us pause and separate a bit from the emotion, if only for a moment.
Exhaustion and Burnout
Emily and Amelia Nagoski pulled together countless studies on emotion, stress, and burnout. Their research highlighted exactly how burnout and emotional exhaustion happen. They postulate,
"Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion."
They present research on the impacts of stress in the body and underscore the importance of completing the stress cycle. Completing the stress cycle can seem like an impossible task because many of us are repeatedly activated and not given the opportunity to fully move through the cycle.
For example, if we find ourselves in a hostile relationship, our stress response may be activated every time we interact with the person who we are in the relationship with. If the tension is such that we are hypervigilient and constantly on-edge when we are around that person, we remain in a stress response. Each hostel interaction maintains the heightened stress levels, and without resolution, time, or space, we will remain in this activated state. Remaining in the activated stress response overtime leads to burnout and exhaustion.
Similarly, many individuals experience work-related burnout. If we find ourselves emotionally activated at work and return to high levels of stress day after day, it is unlikely that we are completing the emotional cycle. We become lodged in the middle, and it's in the middle where the burnout happens.
We get "stuck" for a number of reasons. Sometimes it's because we do not have enough distance or space from the emotional triggers, like in the above examples. We remain perpetually in response mode.
Other times, the authors suggest that we may get stuck because we cannot find our way through processing difficult emotions. There is a very real exhaustion that happens when we experience feelings of grief, rage, helplessness, and despair. These "big" emotions can be too much to process alone. As humans, we were not designed to process these things alone.
The Drs. Nagoski also wisely point out that fixing the problem does not fix the emotion.
Many of us are surrounded by excellent problem solvers. We ourselves might be skilled at problem solving. While important, problem solving does nothing for resolving the emotion. It's the reason why so often we do not yearn for someone to "fix" things so much as understand and validate our emotions.
We can remove the problem, but we still need to express the emotion. Until we see the emotion through to its completion, we will remain in a heightened state of activation.
Now, the million-dollar question. How do we finish an emotional cycle?
Many of us seek wellness culture for a sense of “balance and peace”. This is not a steady state that we reach, but something that takes daily (minute by minute) effort. Stress is a part of life and we were designed for it. It motivates, it moves, it allows us to survive.
The authors of Burnout outline evidence-based strategies for moving through the emotional stress cycle to completion.
Here are the strategies they recommend (with some concrete examples):
Exercise / movement. This can include squeezing or tensing your muscles as tight as possible for 30 seconds and releasing.
Diaphragmatic (belly) breathing.
Positive social interaction - connecting with other people gives your body a signal that it is somewhere safe. This can be a small positive social interaction between you and the grocery store clerk or texting an inside joke to a friend.
Real, side-splitting laughter.
Affection. A 20-second hug can you change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood. Physical contact releases oxytocin which is a mood enhancing bonding hormone. It's the same hormone released between mothers and infants when breast-feeding.
Crying. It doesn’t solve the problem but it completes the stress response cycle by allowing release that stress in your body. When you begin to cry, the research has found that turning toward the experience of crying is the most effective. This looks like noticing how the tears feel streaming down your face, how the snot coming out of your nose is running, if you feel flushed, etc. The crying will end on its own. It time it will move through to completion. Focusing on the experience of crying rather than stoking it with more thoughts of what evoked it is the key.
Creative expression- taking difficult emotions and moving it outside of yourself through creative expression such as art, music, writing, etc. Similarly, use of imagination can move us through the cycle. Imagining in creative ways processing the experience.
Many of us have been functioning in a state of burnout for months. 2020 has not been a walk in the park, and the exhaustion is real. If you find yourself in a state of emotional exhaustion, I encourage you to try a few of the items listed above and notice if anything shifts.
None of the aforementioned will "fix" the issues we are facing, but they may provide a bit of relief and space. When we complete our stress cycle we are more emotionally available to handle the next set of waves. This is more than "self-care". This is intentional use of our own physiology to help us recharge. I hope you find them as helpful as I have.
For a more in-depth look at the cycle of emotions and how to manage the emotional stress cycle, please check out Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD & Amelia Nagoski, DMA
Find an amazing interview with the author's on Brené Brown's podcast Unlocking Us.