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Complete the Stress Cycle

Continuing with our series featuring writers and leaders doing the courageous work of walking into the unknown.

The next post comes from Alicia Jabbar, Co-Founder of the Inside Out Incubator, an organization that designs and delivers leadership programs for women working in male dominated industries. She is also an executive leadership coach who partners with individuals to increase their leadership capacity without sacrificing themselves. She also facilitates the Interpersonal Dynamics course ("Touchy Feely") at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.


Burnout is an age-old topic for me. The Mayo Clinic diagnosed me with a stress disorder three years into working in the startup grind. I let it simmer because I loved my job and refused to believe how stress could impact me. One could look at my life in that period and argue my job was all I had.

Two years later, I quit my job to start this company, and all my symptoms disappeared — a truth that still shocks me. I thought I was in the clear until I became a mother. The stress of that transition resurfaced some of my old symptoms.

This time, I didn’t want to quit the source of my stress, so I focused on learning something new.

Anyone who's been on a video conference with me knows I love to read. My overfull bookshelves double as the backdrop of my video calls. I take my books seriously: I read, highlight, review and extract a few juicy nuggets from every one. It’s one of my favorite ways to learn.

I spent much of my reading time last year in books that address common leadership topics from new angles. One of my picks, "Cassandra Speaks," reminded me that who tells the story makes a big impact on the story.

The Nagaski sisters did a service to women by publishing "Burnout," a book that explains why women experience burnout differently than men. Two years into the pandemic with burnout at an all time high, their book gives women simple and science-based suggestions to support our experience with burnout.

Burnout and stress are friends

When stress is high and goes unaddressed, burnout follows. Perpetual burnout leads women to feel stuck. I’ve heard this from the thousands of women I’ve worked with since the pandemic began.

You ruminate over big questions with no energy to figure them out. You feel overwhelmed. Things feel big and unaddressable.

Your stress and what causes it are not the same thing

The Nagasaki sisters beautifully differentiate between:

  1. Stress: the physiological experience in your body.

  2. Stressors: the external and internal factors that activate a stress response in your body.

In my burnout I collapsed those two things. I see other women doing the same thing.

The good news is that stress and stressors are not the same thing. And the methods for addressing each are different.

Focus on the stress, not the stressor

Set aside the big question you’re holding about the stressor.

These are questions like…

"Should I change jobs?"

"Do I need to take a break from my career?"

"What system do I need to implement to make all of this easier?"

"How do I need to shake up my relationships to better support me?"

Those are looking for answers about the things causing you stress. Set those questions aside.

Instead, give your love and attention to the stress. You can relax the big question you’re holding and get relief. That relief is available to you even if you’re not able to address the stressor.

Relief can come quickly

One thing you need is to complete the cycle of stress. That's a fancy way of saying get your body back to a less stressful state.

The Nagaski twins give us seven scientifically proven ways to do that. Some of these take very little time.

  1. Physical activity. This is the gold standard. Anything to get you out of your head and into your body. A quick fix is a dance party to one or two songs.

  2. Box breathing. Inhale for five counts, hold for five, exhale for five, hold for five. Repeat for five cycles.

  3. Have a positive social interaction. Do something nice for someone. Acknowledge a person’s impact in the world. Initiate a nourishing text exchange with a friend.

  4. Laugh. Healing laughter is the variety that feels a little out of control. You can even look back at a time where you laughed in the past to get you going again.

  5. Say yes to affection. If you have a loved one, share a six-second kiss. A 20-second hug will also do the trick. My husband and I call the latter a "Long Squeeze Please."

  6. Cry. I sometimes think I have to set aside all kinds of time to cry. A well selected song or the sad part of a movie does the trick for me.

  7. Get creative. Exercising your creative muscles can look like a lot of things. For me, it’s writing something or taking a photo with a fun vantage point.

Trust the benefit

I’m not suggesting these small exercises will solve your problems.

I do know that it’s hard to feel resourced to address any of the stressors when the stress feels miles high. If you’re feeling burned out, stuck or overwhelmed, any of these seven suggestions will shift your state.

Once you create that shift, you'll see some of your brilliance grow. Your creativity will be more accessible. Those will help you address the stressor, when it's time.

Call for reflection

What’s something causing you stress that you’re trying to figure out? Stop trying to figure it out, and turn instead toward an easeful way to address the stress, not the stressor, in your life.



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