So many of us are preparing ourselves for a very different start to the new year. In the past, this time of year was filled with enthusiasm, gratitude and giving, and traveling and gathering with friends and loved ones; however, as we begin this new year, it feels eclipsed in so many ways by all the ripple effects from COVID-19 making 2020 an undeniably stressful and turbulent year. There’s grief and loneliness, financial, relational, and job stress, and huge adjustments to change and loss of traditions. These experiences have been challenging for all of us, creating real disappointment and loss – and for those of us with mental health conditions, they have been magnified, nearly pushing us to the brink.  

Stress and anxiety are incredibly natural responses to stressors in our environment, and we all have plenty of those right now. We feel it’s effect in our body, mind, and spirit with increased muscle tension, worried thoughts, and decreased motivation and positivity. Many of us are holding out hope that these feelings will pass once our stressors have been resolved.

Unfortunately, that’s not how our emotions work. We recently listened to Brené Brown’s podcast with guests Amelia and Emily Nagoski (authors of Burnout) on stress and burnout. We loved their description of how stress works –  Like tunnels, feelings (i.e., stress) have beginnings, middles, and ends. We have to go all the way through them to experience true relief; we have to complete the stress cycle. If we ignore, deny or avoid our difficult emotions, we get stuck in the tunnel and experience burnout, where we’re not just emotionally and mentally exhausted, but also demoralized and detached from ourselves – we often refer to this as feeling stuck. (If you’re not sure what burnout is, here are some tell-tale signs of burnout.)

We can experience relief from our stress and burnout by turning towards our difficult feelings with kindness and compassion and letting ourselves finish the feeling and complete the stress cycle.

To complete the stress cycle, we have to speak our body’s language. We cannot separate our emotions from how our body feels them. If you want to feel better, you can’t just talk or rationalize yourself into it. You have to do something to let your body know that it’s safe and at rest. And remember it’s a cycle. So when you find the thing that makes your body feel safe and rested, you have to do it every time those difficult emotions are triggered.

Ways to work through the stress cycle

Turn towards your feelings and stressors. Identify how you’re feeling and give it a name. Ask yourself why you might be feeling that way (what caused it) or what the worst part of how your feeling is to get to the bottom of what’s actually happening for you. It may not be the surface level feeling or stressor you thought it might be. Using emotional intelligence to order our experience in this way helps regulate our nervous system and gives us clarity about our needs.

Turn towards your body. Any kind of physical activity is the most efficient way to restore calm to our body. This doesn’t have to be a full-fledged workout, it can be as simple as going for a short walk or getting up and stretching or doing arm swings. Do some experimenting and find what works for you. Deep, slow breathing can also be a gentle way to connect with your body and complete the stress response cycle as it lets your body know it can relax.

Turn towards connection. Positive social interactions give us and our bodies a sense of home and safety no matter where we are. It’s difficult to connect socially while we’re physically distancing, but if we get creative with technology and precautions, we can still turn towards connection with the people who matter most.

Turn towards yourself. Give yourself some compassion this holiday season. Say no when you want to and set the boundaries your body needs to find rest. Remind yourself you don’t have to go the extra mile and that it’s okay to look like you’re having a hard time when you’re going through a hard time. Practice gratitude for whatever you can and give yourself space to grieve the things you’ve lost.  

Turn towards acceptance. So many things are out of our control this year, so practice accepting imperfection and unmet expectations as they come. Let go of the things that aren’t important so you have the energy to focus on the things that are. Challenge yourself to look at things from a different perspective when you find yourself getting stuck in frustration or disappointment. Slow down and taking advantage of every opportunity to reflect and accept.

Turn to a professional. If you find your stress and feelings of burnout are persisting, look to increase your resources by reaching out to a mental health professional who can work with you to develop personalized strategies that will improve your mood and coping abilities. You’re not alone and don’t have to face this alone either.

By turning towards these things, working through and completing the stress cycle, you will have a greater chance of creating space for other experiences and feelings to emerge, such as hope and joy.

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