The Key to Avoiding Burnout
Photo courtesy of Amy Harrity
Like it or not (and we go with not), there is “a cultural expectation that women will just give and give until they have nothing left,” says Amelia Nagoski. “Whereas men notice their exhaustion and have cultural permission to rest and be cared for, women are expected to tolerate a degree of stress so profound, they might end up hospitalized.”
Amelia and Emily Nagoski started researching the notion that stress can somehow get stuck in our bodies and that, in extreme cases, it can even lead to medical problems. The bridge between stress and pain proved to be a short one. “We’ve lost count of the number of women who have told us they have been hospitalized or have experienced chronic illness as a result of intense, long-term stress.” The result of their research and work is Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. In their book, the twin sisters identify the difference between stress and stressors and explore the cycle of stress. “The good news is that stress is not the problem,” they write. It’s how we deal with stress—not what causes it—that releases the stress, completes the cycle, and ultimately, keeps us from burning out, says Emily.
And as Amelia learned, you can’t control every external stressor that comes your way: “The goal isn’t to live in a state of perpetual balance and peace and calm; the goal is to move through stress to calm, so that you’re ready for the next stressor, and to move from effort to rest and back again.”
A Q&A with Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA
Emily: It is the biological response to anything the brain perceives as a threat. Like all biological processes, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If we can move all the way through the stress response cycle, we stay healthy. The problems begin if we get stuck. Often we expect that solving the problem that activated the stress response will end the stress response cycle, but in fact the process of dealing with most modern stressors, like traffic, kids, money, relationships, etc., is separate from the process of dealing with the stress itself. We have to deal with both.
Take the example of traffic. If you have a difficult commute home, once you get home, you don’t instantly feel peaceful and relaxed in your body. You’re still in the middle of the stress response. Even though you’ve dealt with the stressor (by getting out of traffic), your body still needs you to deal with the stress itself by completing the stress response cycle.
Some evidence-based strategies for completing the cycle are physical activity (even just jumping up and down), a twenty-second hug with a loved one, a good old cry, belly laughter, and the classic nap.
Emily: Humans are not built to do big things alone; we are built to do them together. We are almost a hive species. A twenty-second hug or a six-second kiss tells our bodies that we have arrived in a safe place with our tribe. Our hormones shift, our heart rate slows, and we recognize that our body is a safe place for us to be. Of course, we don’t have to live in a state of constant connection. We are built to oscillate from autonomy to connection and back again. Time spent in our bubble of love renews us so that we are well enough to go out into the world.
Amelia: The good news is that the bubble of love is not limited to other people. Humans share connections and benefit from relationships with all kinds of other animals. Time spent petting your cat or playing with your dog or caring for a horse or your fish or your iguana gives you the benefit of a loving connection.
Our capacity to connect is not limited to the physical plane. We have the capacity to connect to higher dimensions in religious worship or other spiritual belief, whether we recognize a creator or a source of life or inspiration. The sense of loving presence we feel in religious practice is just as real as connection with fellow humans.
Amelia: Stress is the body’s physiological reaction to anything the brain perceives as a threat. The thing that’s perceived as a threat is the stressor. We deal with stressors in different ways depending on whether they are stressors we can control or stressors we cannot control.
For stressors we can control, we have planful problem-solving. Women are usually socialized to be good at planful problem-solving. If you keep a GPS in your car or make lists or keep calendars or carry the contents of a drugstore in your purse, you have planfully problem-solved. If you have ever asked a friend to text you at exactly 8 p.m. so you can get out of an awkward first date, you have planfully problem-solved. The one thing we tend to forget in our plans is ourselves. We have to remember to include dealing with the stress itself by completing the stress response cycle in our plan.
For stressors we cannot control, there is positive reappraisal. It means what it sounds like: “Look on the bright side!” But that’s not all there is to it. Positive reappraisal is about recognizing the genuine benefits to a struggle, the growth we experience when we are challenged, and seeing that difficulty is worth it. Here’s a small example: If two groups of students are given the same reading, but one group gets it in an easy-to-read font and the other gets it in a difficult-to-read font, which group will remember more of the reading? The group that has to work harder. Often when things are difficult, that’s when we’re growing the most. Positive reappraisal means recognizing the ways that the difficulty is worth it.
Amelia: Human giver syndrome is the false, contagious belief that women have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. With HGS, if a giver falls short in any way, she may be punished or even go so far as to punish herself.
Notice that it is not the giving itself that is toxic; it’s the other half of the equation. It’s someone else’s sense of entitlement to everything a woman has—her attention, her time, her affection, her hopes and dreams, her body, her very life. We want a world where everyone feels a responsibility to care for one another, not a world where some people give everything until they have nothing left and are punished if they fall short or if they do something totally against the rules, like ask to have their own needs met.
Amelia: Women have learned that it is noble and right to sacrifice themselves and their well-being on the altar of other people’s comfort. We get encouragement and praise when we humblebrag that we got only four hours of sleep because we were up all night baking cupcakes for our kid’s class party. But what kind of response would we get if we told our colleagues, “I got eight hours of sleep last night and I feel so much better”? How would we react if we heard someone else tell us they caught up on their sleep? Would we resent that they’re not following the rules, or would we celebrate their well-being? This is why we say the solution to burnout is not self-care; it’s all of us caring for one another.
Emily: The toxic aspect of perfectionism isn’t having high standards or setting challenging goals for yourself; it is believing that failure to meet those standards or achieve those goals means that you are a failure and your endeavors are worthless. Harsh self-criticism sets in and we burn out faster when we’re constantly punishing ourselves for being imperfect. Letting go of the idea that you have to be all things to all people—especially the idea that as a human giver you must be perpetually pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others—doesn’t happen overnight. It took a couple decades of indoctrination to make you believe that was the standard you were supposed to live up to; it will take another decade or two to unlearn it. It will take surrounding ourselves with people who don’t treat us as if we’ve failed if we fall short.
Amelia: If people take only one idea from the book to use in their lives, we hope it’s that wellness is not a state of being—it’s a state of action. It is the freedom to oscillate through the cycles of being human. Real-world wellness is messy, complicated, and not always accessible. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed and exhausted, that doesn’t mean you’re doing self-care wrong; it just means you’re moving through the process. Grant your body permission to be imperfect. Listen to your internal experience, even though the world is trying to drown it out or make you doubt your own emotions.
Emily Nagoski is the author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. She has a PhD in health behavior with a minor in human sexuality from Indiana University. She received her MS in counseling from IU and held a clinical internship at the Kinsey Institute sexual health clinic. She has been a sex educator for twenty years, and she currently works as the inaugural director of wellness education at Smith College.
Amelia Nagoski has a DMA in conducting from the University of Connecticut. An assistant professor and a coordinator of music at Western New England University, she leads educational sessions on communications science and psychological research for professional musicians, including Beyond Burnout Prevention: Embodied Wellness for Conductors.