Wellness culture is in overdrive: Instagram carousels harping on about self-love practices and workplaces throwing team-building events in the name of wellbeing — it's everywhere you look. While a growing focus on mental health is good news, it's important to remember that you can't buy your way into wellness and trendy anti-anxiety treatments won't work for everyone.
Renowned sex educator, researcher and author Emily Nagoski and her twin sister Amelia Nagoski are co-hosts of the Feminist Survival Project, a resource for women that centres on mental health, burnout and identity. In an episode of the podcast, they unpack the process of completing the stress cycle response. The pair explains the importance of separating the stress from the stressor (i.e. the cause of the stress). It's a relief to hear — that we can deal with stress without having to solve what's actually causing the stress.
Here are the 12 concrete, evidence-based methods the sisters recommend for completing the stress response. They emphasise, however, that these are just options, "not a To Do list", as what will work for one person might not work for another.
1. Physical activity
Before you roll your eyes or click away, I understand how painfully obvious it is that exercise is one way to deal with stress. But learning the reasoning behind this might convince you to try.
Our stressors have evolved from things like being hunted by a predatory animal in the wild, and so our bodies respond accordingly. What do you do if you're being chased? You run! That act of running and moving your body out of harm's way tells your body that you have moved to safety.
But you don't have to run long distances to benefit. The Nagoski sisters recommend jumping jacks next to your desk, shaking your body or hands, going for a walk or using an exercise machine.
Sleep is not only vital for our general health, but also plays an important part in processing emotions.
"During our REM sleep, you experience dreaming. Part of what happens during dreaming is that your brain processes emotional experiences you had during the day and have had during your lifetime,” Emily explains. "It means your brain is doing that work for you without you having to be there for it."
She also says that majority of people need between seven and nine hours of sleep — but mentions that you don't need these hours in a row and that segmented sleep is also effective.
"If you’re paying attention to your breath, you are not paying attention to the things that are stressing you out," adds Emily.
It sounds a bit magical but you can use imagination to deal with stress. "It makes sense that imagination would be able to complete a stress cycle because we already know that your imagination can activate a stress response cycle," Emily says, noting that many of us worry about things that aren't actively happening.
5. Creative self-expression
Tied to imagination, creative self-expression asks you to utilise your interests and tools to make "a thing". It doesn't matter what 'the thing' is, the pair says. It could be crafting, cooking, playing an instrument, writing or fixing a bike.
"Though crying may not solve your stressor, it can complete the stress response cycle which puts you in a better state of mind to better address your stressor," the pair shares.
In order for this to be effective, they say that you need to let yourself cry without hesitation, judgement or worry about why you're crying.
Instead, they say to focus on the act of crying and the bodily sensations attached. "How much heat do I feel in my body? Where’s the tension? How much snot is pouring out of my nose right now? Attend to the physical experience of the crying,” they say.
7. Superficial social connection
Brief eye contact with a stranger, a superficial smile — these mundane interactions can actually help relieve stress. "This is one of the first signals your brain uses as a sign that the world is a safe place," Emily says.
Try it out by complimenting your barista on their earrings or engaging in polite chat about the weather with someone on public transport. The Nagoski sisters share research showing that if you engage in surface-level chit-chat with a public transport companion, both people will have a better day.
8. Intimate connection
The Nagoski sisters recommend three ways of engaging in intimate connection with someone that you love and trust. First, a 20-second hug helps your body understand that you are with someone you feel safe with. Secondly, a six-second kiss every day can also mimic those feelings of security and trust.
A 30-minute stress-reducing conversation can also do the same. “Basically it’s you and and a really important person in your life spending 30 minutes processing what happened in a day and while you talk about your stressful stuff that happened, your partner’s job is to listen and be supportive and make it really clear that you together are on the same team,” Amelia says, adding that no problem-solving advice is needed here.
9. Connection with nature
For those who feel that human connection isn't what works for them, connection with nature, animals and landscapes is also beneficial.
"Just looking at a picture of a tree can lower your blood pressure and make you feel more relaxed. If you can actually get out to nature, even better," they say.
Pet are great teachers of living, they add, showing us how to relax, be ourselves and love unreservedly.
10. Spiritual connection
"If you have access to a sense of [the] divine, that can be a supportive place to experience loving connection," the sisters say.
It doesn't have to be organised religion either — people can find spiritual connection in community and movement too.
The pair advocates for unselfconscious, big-hearted laughter — none of that performative "social lubricant" type fake stuff. "It is the embarrassing, uncontrollable, belly laughter that shifts your chemicals," they say.
While it can be hard to manufacture funny moments, one way to instigate laughter is by sharing past memories and inside jokes with one another.
12. Mindful self-compassion
Being compassionate and kind to yourself can often be an abstract concept to fully grasp. There's no need to get all existential, though. The Nagoski sisters provide a practical exercise to try out:
"Fold your hands over your heart, inhale slowly and gently. As you exhale, you’re going say to yourself the thing your heart needs to hear: you’re going to be ok, you’ve been doing enough, things are going to be alright."