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For Mum Wellbeing

Mum burnout: how to actually break the stress cycle

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Your baby not sleeping well, working in a job you don’t enjoy, or fighting with your partner: these are all stressors that most people will experience at some point or another. 

And while our bodies are biologically designed to handle stress in small bursts, the stress parents feel today can last a lot longer. 

Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, authors of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, say that normal emotions have a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

What many people don’t know is that it’s best to move through the entire cycle. But what tends to happen is people get stuck in the middle of an emotion – and that’s when exhaustion and burnout kick in. 

Speaking to Brene Brown in her Unlocking Us podcast, Emily and Amelia say that “exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

During the podcast, Brene and the Nagoski sisters talk about what happens when we continuously shove our stress down inside of us over a long period of time. 

As Emily says, “You wind up in the hospital, like Amelia” (Amelia once experienced stomach pains so severe that she was hospitalised; emotional exhaustion and stress were found as the cause). While this is a worst-case scenario, it’s a very real side effect of not dealing with stress properly. 

Stress vs stressors

Before we dive into how to deal with stress, it’s important to differentiate between stress and stressors – they are completely different things and need to be dealt with separately. 

“Stressors are the things that activate the stress response, and most are external, like work, kids, money,” the sisters say. “And some are internal, like body self-criticism, trauma history, and the activation of the stress response. 

“The stress itself is what happens in your body. It’s this chemical stew that gets activated in response to it.

“It’s designed to help us evolutionarily survive the stress of being chased by a lion. When you are being chased by a lion you run.”

So why do some of us get stuck in the stress cycle? 

Removing the stressors doesn’t mean the stress cycle is complete.

“Sometimes we get stuck because we can’t find our way through. The most difficult feelings – like rage, grief, despair, hopelessness – might be too treacherous to get through alone. We get lost and need someone else’s loving presence to help us find our way through,” they say.  

“But a lot of us are taught to believe that if we fix the problem that caused the emotion, then we have dealt with the emotion itself.”

This isn’t true. You still have to process those pesky feelings – otherwise they end up living inside of you, and causing more trouble in the long run.

“You still have to deal with the feeling, which is a separate step from dealing with the issues that are activating the emotion in your body,” they say. 

Which means two things: you don’t have to wait for all the stressors to go away before you can start to feel better (this is great news for people who have stressors in their lives that can’t be removed).

But it does mean that when the stressors go away, you have to deal with the stress separately.

Tell your body that it’s safe

So how do you deal with stress? You have to tell your body it’s safe. 

Unfortunately, you can’t speak the words, so you have to speak your body’s language … in actual body language.

7 ways to complete the stress cycle

The sisters identify 7 ways you can effectively tell your body it is safe and complete the stress cycle. 

1. Physical activity: The most effective way to complete the cycle is physical activity. They say this can be any form of physical activity, from dancing to walking to shaking your arms around – just move. 

2. Breathing: Breathing is the gentlest way to complete the stress cycle. Focus on your breath for at least a minute and a half. 

3. Positive social interaction: Connecting with people tells your body that it is safe. The good news is that this can be as simple as positive interaction with someone serving you at a cafe. 

4. Laughter: Laughter may be the best medicine, but there’s one caveat: it can’t be fake! In this case, it needs to be a deep uncontrollable belly laugh that takes over your whole body. 

5. Hugs: Hug your loved ones until you feel relaxed. Give it at least 20 seconds, but it’s not so much about the time as it is about waiting until your body feels safe. 

6. A big cry: Crying won’t solve all of your problems, but it will help release stress – so let it out. 

7. Creative expression: Take whatever is inside you and put it outside of you. For example, art, journaling, “knitting booties made of your rage” (their words, not mine).

How do you know you’ve completed the cycle? 

Your body will tell you. You’ll feel it. You just have to learn to listen for it. 

If you don’t feel better straight away, don’t worry. It’s possible that there is a backlog of emotions that need to be released. As long as you are feeling better than when you started, that’s a good sign.

You can’t control the stressors, but you can finish the stress cycle. Or you will burn out. 

Self-care requires a ‘bubble of protection’

While all of the above strategies are very helpful, the sisters add that self-care alone isn’t the cure for burnout.

“It has to be all of us caring for each other,” they say

“That’s not going to work if you live in a household where you are the only person who prioritises your wellbeing.

“It requires everybody in the household to agree that your 8 hours of sleep is a priority and we are going to cordon off that time and space and protect it so that you can have that time. 

“Self-care requires a bubble of protection of other people who value your wellbeing at least as high as you do. So the cure for burnout must ultimately be each of us caring for each other.”

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