Blog Short #138: Stress-Release Strategies That Help You Avoid Burnout
Last week, you learned what stress does to your body and psyche, especially chronic stress that builds up over time. Part of managing stress is finding effective methods to release it so it doesn’t negatively impact your physical and mental health.
Even when you can control the things that are causing your stress (stressors), you still have to recover from the fallout of dealing with them.
That’s what we’re talking about today: What activities or practices can you use to de-stress and “complete the cycle” of stress release?
Some of these will be short-term strategies you can use on the spot, and others are long-term strategies that keep you stress-free while immunizing you to stress build-up.
I’ll list them and give you brief descriptions.
A Quick Stress Primer
Before we start on stress-release methods, I want to summarize what we’re trying to accomplish with these activities. This information comes from Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain.
He likens releasing stress in the body to “cooling the fires,” which is an apt description. To accomplish this, we need to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is one component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The autonomic nervous system is a part of the overall peripheral nervous system and regulates crucial physiologic processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.
The ANS has three divisions – sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric. For our purposes, we’re only concerned with the first two.
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates the fight-or-flight response to perceived danger when you’re stressed.
- The parasympathetic (PNS) does the opposite: it calms and soothes your body and brain after periods of stress.
Stress-release strategies aim to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system while cooling the sympathetic nervous system.
Having this information under your belt makes it easier to decide what activities might be helpful. Let’s go through them now. I’ll start with short-term activities.
Everyone knows deep breathing is helpful when you’re stressed, but there’s a way to do it.
Place your hand on your upper abdomen just below your ribcage. Start with a slow inhale through your nose to the count of 4. As you breathe in, push your belly out as you move air up into your lungs. Hold that for a count of 4. Now exhale through your mouth to a count of 4 until you’re completely empty. If you like, hold this for a count of 4 or just begin your next inhale.
Complete the whole series four times. When finished, sit and relax and feel the calming effect. The PNS is stimulated during exhalation, so make sure to exhale completely.
You can do this routine any place, and it takes only a few minutes. It’s a reset for the body and mind and is helpful when you feel your emotions ramping up.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
I’ve attached a handout with specific instructions for how to do this activity. (Get links to the handouts at the end of the article.) Generally, it consists of focusing on various body parts one at a time, noticing tension there, and then releasing it by consciously relaxing.
For example, focus on your shoulders. Where do you feel the tension in them? Are you holding them up or hunching forward? Now relax them completely. Go to the next body part and continue the process.
You can work from your feet up or your head down. A more extensive process is to tense each body part intentionally before relaxing it. Either way is helpful.
Rick Hanson suggests four things you can do quickly at any time. They are:
- Relax your eyes, jaw muscles, and tongue.
- Let yourself sink into the ground (if lying down) or chair if sitting, and feel the tension draining out of your body. This is a good exercise to use when going to sleep.
- Run warm water over your hands. It’s surprising how much this can relax you.
- Scan your body for areas of tension, and then relax them. You may know specific body parts you tense regularly. Check them first.
Exercise is a short and long-term solution and one of the best methods of releasing immediate stress. Going for a walk outside does wonders for both body and mind and helps you complete the cycle of a stressful incident. A run is great if you can do that. Anything aerobic does the job. Walking is fine.
Regular exercise raises your stress tolerance and clears out a backlog of stress you might be holding in your body.
John Ratey likens exercise to a “stress inoculation.” Toxic levels of stress erode connections between nerve cells in the brain. Regular exercise has the opposite effect. It sparks the growth and preservation of neurons, which creates stronger nerve connections and enhances brain functioning.
An added benefit is that aerobic exercise also increases serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, improving mood, focus, and motivation.
Along with exercise, meditation is one of the most effective methods of completing the cycle and releasing stress. It’s also the best method of reducing stress-related reactivity to adversity.
- Increases gray matter in the insula, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, which enhances memory, cognition, and control of emotions.
- Improves psychological functions such as empathy, focus and attention, compassion, and tolerance.
- Creates emotional space so that you have less negative reactivity to stressful events. I’ve meditated regularly for many years, and I’ve noticed that when something stressful occurs, I have an almost slow-motion reaction that allows me to stand between myself and the event and observe while thinking about how to react. This happens automatically. I feel calm even when something goes wrong. If I do have an anxious reaction, I can note it without fully engaging in it.
- Decreases the release of stress-related cortisol.
- Strengthens the immune system.
- Diminishes mood disturbances and other chronic psychological conditions like anxiety, insomnia, and impulsivity.
Think of it this way:
Meditation works directly on the mind while calming the body and enhancing physiological functioning on a neural level. If you meditate regularly, over time, all your other habits will improve, as will your ability to regulate your emotions. Meditation also delves into your subconscious and releases stress associated with memories and trauma.
It’s both preventative and healing. It immunizes you from stress.
Talking it Out
Stress is worse in isolation. Talking to someone who can listen helps you pull the stress out, work it over, and release it. Don’t go it alone, but make sure you choose the right person to talk to. Read this blog to help you do that.
This one also comes from Rick Hanson.
Ask yourself this question:
Throughout your life, where have you found refuge when you needed a place to let down your guard and feel safe and soothed?
This could be a place, activity, person, or persons such as family members, friends, or partners. It could be a teacher/mentor/spiritual figure. Pets count too.
It might be something more ideological, like truth, compassion, faith, or love.
Or maybe books, poetry, or art.
Where, who, or what are your refuges, and how do you experience them? Think about this over the next week and identify them.
When you keep them in mind, you can turn to them even in thought when you’re stressed. Just focusing on them can recharge and relax you simultaneously and give you the fortitude to keep going.
These are your sanctuaries.
I’ve attached several PDFs below to extend what we’ve discussed here. You can download them if you like and keep them for reference.
This blog didn’t address what to do about stressors. That’ll be coming up next week.
That’s all for today.
Have a great week!
All my best,
Davidson, R. J. 2004. Well-being and affective style: Neural substrates and biobehavioural correlates. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 359(1449), 1395–1411. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2004.1510
Dusek, J. A., Out, H. H., Wohlhueter, A. L., Bhasin, M., Zerbini, L. F., Joseph, M. G., Benson, H. & Libermann, T. A. (2017). Genomic counter-stress changes induced by the relaxation response. PLOS ONE, 12(2): e0172845.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172845
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.M., Gould, N.F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D.D., Shihab, H.M., et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-368. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Harbinger Publications.
Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Gard, T., Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K. & Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 3(1), 55–61. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsm038
Luders, E., Toga, A. W., Lepore, N., & Gaser, C. (2009). The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage, 45(3), 672-678. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.12.061
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T. & Davidson, R. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. PLOS ONE, 3(3):e1897. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897
Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown Spark.
Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feg, S., Lu, Q., Yu, Q., Sui, D., Rothbart, M., Fan, M., & Posner, M. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(43), 17152–17156. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.070767810