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Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Emily Nagoski, PhD Amelia Nagoski, DMA

About the Authors

Emily Nagoski is a scholar of health education and behavioral health, holding a Ph.D. in Health Behavior specializing in Human Sexuality from Indiana University, Bloomington. Her work in human sexuality and women’s wellness has been widely recognized and acclaimed. She authored the bestselling book Come As You Are. Additionally, Emily is a speaker known for her engaging presentations that integrate science, health, and empowerment.

Amelia Nagoski, earned her doctorate in Music from the University of Connecticut. Her expertise lies in the psychological facets of music education and performance, with a specific focus on stress and its effects on musicians. Amelia’s collaborative work with her sister, Emily, culminated in the co-authored book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, a comprehensive guide to managing stress.

Sources: emilynagoski.com “About the Authors” section of the book

Our one-sentence summary

Stress affects individuals physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but we can prevent burnout by learning to break the stress cycle, finding social support, and completing the stress response.

Publisher’s Summary

Burnout. Many women in America have experienced it. What’s expected of women and what it’s really like to be a woman in today’s world are two very different things—and women exhaust themselves trying to close the gap between them. How can you “love your body” when every magazine cover has ten diet tips for becoming “your best self”? How do you “lean in” at work when you’re already operating at 110 percent and aren’t recognized for it? How can you live happily and healthily in a sexist world that is constantly telling you you’re too fat, too needy, too noisy, and too selfish?

Sisters Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, are here to help end the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Instead of asking us to ignore the very real obstacles and societal pressures that stand between women and well-being, they explain with compassion and optimism what we’re up against—and show us how to fight back. In these pages you’ll learn

  • what you can do to complete the biological stress cycle—and return your body to a state of relaxation
  • how to manage the “monitor” in your brain that regulates the emotion of frustration
  • how the Bikini Industrial Complex makes it difficult for women to love their bodies—and how to defend yourself against it
  • why rest, human connection, and befriending your inner critic are keys to recovering and preventing burnout

With the help of eye-opening science, prescriptive advice, and helpful worksheets and exercises, all women will find something transformative in these pages—and will be empowered to create positive change. Emily and Amelia aren’t here to preach the broad platitudes of expensive self-care or insist that we strive for the impossible goal of “having it all.” Instead, they tell us that we are enough, just as we are—and that wellness, true wellness, is within our reach.

Source: Book Jacket

Detailed Summary

Note: The authors wrote this book targeting women who are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. However, many of these strategies apply to anyone feeling burned out.

Introduction

  • Most of us know that self-care is important. If we feel burned out, it isn’t because we aren’t trying to take care of ourselves or don’t know how. The problem is wellness has become a seemingly unattainable goal.
    • This book approaches this issue by reframing wellness under the scope of real life for the average individual.
  • The authors clarify that humans are social creatures, and that we need each other, even in the context of burnout.
  • The technical term burnout was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975. In his definition, he had three main components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (i.e., a lessening of empathy or compassion), and decreased sense of accomplishment.
    • Research found that the first element – emotional exhaustion— is what’s most strongly associated with burnout and its negative effects on our health, relationships, and work, especially among women.
  • The authors argue that exhaustion happens when we get stuck in one emotion. There are three main reasons why this happens:
    • We’re constantly exposed to the situation that triggers the negative emotion.
    • We can’t find a way to stop feeling the negative emotion. Difficult feelings like rage, grief, despair, and helplessness are too difficult for someone to overcome on their own.
    • We get caught in a situation where we cannot feel the emotion through its dissipation.
  • Throughout the book, the authors use the term Human Giver Syndrome to refer to how some people give or serve more than the average population. They argue this is more common among women and is more closely associated with burnout.
  • We thrive when we have a goal. So, one key strategy to overcoming burnout is to focus on a positive goal that lies ahead rather than trying to run away from a negative state.

Part I – What You Take with You 

Chapter 1: Complete the Cycle

  • Burnout, its sense of helplessness, and emotional exhaustion are ubiquitous in the American population.
  • The first step to overcoming burnout is understanding the difference between stress and stressor, as dealing with each entails a distinct process.
    • Stressors are what activate stress responses in the body: anything you can hear, smell, touch, taste, or even imagine that your body perceives as a threat.
    • Stress is a neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter these threats. It’s an evolutionary adaptive response that helps us survive (e.g., from a dangerous animal’s attack)
  • Chronic stress is detrimental to our health (e.g., chronically activated stress leads to chronically increased blood pressure, which results in an increased risk of heart disease).
  • Unlike the days when we needed to escape a wild animal’s attack to survive, today, it is stress itself and not the stressor that threatens our lives.
  • To deal with stress, we have to finish a stress cycle. Eliminating the stressor isn’t enough because we haven’t done anything for our bodies to recognize that we are safe. Unconsciously, we still feel threatened.
  • There are three main reasons why we struggle to finish the stress cycle:
    • We are stuck in a stress-activating situation (e.g., you are stressed about a work project. Even though you try to relax at home, the project is there the next day).
    • Social appropriateness – we can’t fight or flee (e.g., you’re taking an exam and want to run away but can’t).
    • It’s safer (e.g., you get harassed on the street, but figure fighting someone will put you in greater danger).
  • Fight or flight responses are common reactions to threatening or stressful experiences. Both of them involve action. But there is a third mechanism your body employs: freezing. This happens when the brain assesses the threat and determines we’re not equipped to fight and cannot flee. When we freeze, it becomes harder to finish the stress cycle.
  • We experience stress almost every day, so we have to build a completing-cycle system into every day. The best strategy is engaging in physical activity. This signals to your body that you’ve successfully survived a threat. Other strategies include:
    • Slow, deep breaths that regulate stress responses. This is most effective when stress isn’t too high, or you need to quickly get through a difficult situation, after which you will do something else like physical activity.
    • Casual, friendly social interactions that signal your body that you’re in a safe place.
    • It increases relationship satisfaction, helps maintain social bonds, and regulates emotions.
    • Research shows that 20-second hugs let your body know you’re safe. Even petting your dog or cat can help you decrease stress levels. Spirituality is also key within this context.
    • You may not have changed the situation you’re dealing with when you cry, but you’ve completed the cycle.
    • Engaging in creative activities that lead to more energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Like sports, the arts create a context that tolerates and encourages big emotions that let you manage stress.
  • The strategies mentioned above all have something in common. You do something to complete the cycle. This isn’t an intellectual decision but a physiological action.
  • Some people struggle to recognize when they are stressed. Some signs include:
    • Continually engaging in pointless or even self-destructive behaviors (e.g., checking things, thinking obsessive thoughts, fiddling with your own body).
    • Chandeliering (a term borrowed from Brené Brown) – when your reaction appears out of proportion to the here and now.
    • Hiding (e.g., avoiding socialization).
    • Chronic pain, injuries that won’t heal, infections that recur, or pain that cannot be diagnosed. 

Chapter 2: Persist

  • Chapter one was about stress itself. This chapter is about the stressor and deciding whether to persist or quit.
  • The authors use the term The Monitor to refer to the brain’s mechanism to make such a decision unconsciously. They explain that the Monitor knows your goals, effort level, and progress.
    • The less effort and the more progress, the more satisfied the Monitor. But the more effort and the less progress, the more quickly the Monitor gets upset.
  • When the Monitor assesses a goal as unattainable, it causes strong emotional reactions that can lead to despair. To avoid this, we must first deal with stressors we can control. Then, we must learn to manage the stressors we cannot control.
  • One strategy is positive reappraisal. Reevaluate the effort and discomfort you’re going through as opportunities for growth and learning.
    • Note that this is not about “looking on the bright side” or “finding a silver lining.” This strategy works only when it is true. Find opportunities for growth in the difficulties you face.
    • Not every stressor is beneficial, so be careful with this approach.
  • Another strategy is changing the Monitor’s expectations about the difficulty level of what you’re trying to do. If it perceives your goal as difficult, it makes sense to struggle so you won’t get frustrated.
  • For abstract or intangible goals, reduce frustration by establishing a nonstandard relationship with winning. Widen your focus to notice benefits.
  • To determine if you should quit, the authors recommend writing four lists: (1) the benefits of continuing, (2) the costs of continuing, (3) the benefits of stopping, and (4) the costs of stopping both in the short and long term.
    • If you still can’t decide, listen to your body. It will tell you what you need.

Chapter 3: Meaning

  • We thrive when we have meaning, purpose, or what the authors call Something Larger than Ourselves.
  • While there are two main psychological approaches to finding meaning, both agree that meaning isn’t always fun and that life has meaning when a person contributes something positive to others.
  • Researchers found that meaning usually comes from three kinds of sources:
    1. The pursuit and achievement of an ambitious goal that leaves a legacy.
    2. A service to God, the Divine, or a spiritual calling.
    3. A loving, emotionally intimate connection with others (e.g., raising your kids or loving and supporting your partner).
  • Or a combination of these three factors.
  • To define Your Something Larger, examine what things you engage in that make you feel powerful. Strategies include:
    • Write your own obituary or your life summary through the eyes of a student or grandchild.
    • Ask a close friend to describe the real you.
    • Write a letter of support to an imaginary someone who is going through a struggle. Then, reread the letter as if it were meant for you.
    • Think of a time when you experienced an intense sense of meaning or purpose and define what you were doing.
  • The Human Giver Syndrome’s symptoms include believing that:
    • You have an obligation to be pretty, happy, generous, or attentive (among others).
    • Any failure to follow these obligations makes you a failure.
    • Your failure means you deserve to be punished.
    • These are not symptoms but just everyday situations.
  • The Human Giver Syndrome makes you ignore your Something Larger because you’re supposed to dedicate yourself to the service of others. But if you find your Something Larger and work towards it, you heal this syndrome.
  • Compassion is also crucial. You need to be compassionate towards yourself to recover from burnout.

 

Part II – The Real Enemy

Chapter 4: The Game Is Rigged

  • Through experimentation with rats, researchers learned about helplessness – an inability to try. Anyone who repeatedly experiences situations they can’t escape from will learn to give up and not try to overcome them, even when given an opportunity.
  • Yet other research found that simply learning about an experiment being rigged (or a puzzle being unsolvable) immediately put participants out of the helpless state.
  • With that in mind, the authors argue that it’s important for women to understand that society makes it easier for boys to grow up and take positions of power and authority.
    • It’s not that males are invulnerable to other sources of stress, burnout, and anything detrimental to their health. But, since this book focuses on females, the authors dedicate this chapter to the societal elements that increase the likelihood of burnout, stress, and exhaustion among women.
  • Women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic low-level stress due to societal factors such as:
    • Explicit misogyny,
    • Sexual assault (which disproportionately and systematically targets women),
    • Body dysmorphia and eating disorders (which disproportionately affects females),
    • Being easier for males to be listened to and more challenging for women to speak up.
  • Additionally, research shows that female and male biology leads to distinct responses to stress, explaining (at least to a degree) why women suffer more from burnout than men.
  • Gaslighting – a term that comes from a movie by the same name – refers to being repeatedly told that whatever is bothering us comes from our own imagination.
    • Constant gaslighting makes you feel like you cannot trust your senses because you’re continually being told you’re mistaken, causing you to question your own credibility and competence.
  • The authors argue that to deal with burnout, we first need to understand that societal norms are not set up to treat everyone equally, but rather are set up to blind us to such unfairness. Then, we need to engage in the strategies covered in the book’s first three chapters: complete the cycle, keep the Monitor satisfied, and engage in Your Something Larger.

Chapter 5: The Bikini Industrial Complex

  • In the previous chapter, the authors talked about how women are more likely than men to suffer from body dysmorphia and eating disorders. One study found that 92% of the female adolescent participants had engaged in weight control behaviors and almost half of them in unhealthy weight control behaviors.
  • Hypervigilance and stress associated with seeking unattainable beauty standards can lead to burnout. Research on self-regulatory fatigue found that focusing too much of your cognitive resources on choices about food, clothing, exercise, and makeup can lead to exhaustion.
  • It’s important to understand that these standards are set by an industry that benefits from people seeking to achieve such standards. Additionally, weight-related information can be misleading.
    • For instance, the Body Mass Index chart and its labels are misguiding. Research has found that it can be healthier to be classified on the BMI’s overweight label than the underweight label. Even being in the overweight category can be less risky than being at the low end of the healthy label range.
  • To combat image hypervigilance, the authors recommend several strategies:
  1. Accepting the Mess: Ambivalence is normal. Don’t strive for body acceptance; instead, accept the mess. It’s okay to have contradictory thoughts and feelings about your image but treat them compassionately.
  2. Redefine Beauty: Make a new definition of beauty by including your heart and body as they are in the present, looking at yourself with kindness.
    1. The authors use the term “new hotness,” borrowed from Men in Black II, to describe how you should feel after a new scar, gaining a few pounds, or finding new wrinkles and gray hairs.
  3. Find Beauty in Others: Look at everybody as the “new hotness.”
  4. Turn Your Attention Away From Mirrors and People’s Bodies: Notice what’s inside instead.
  • Look at yourself as someone who needs care like an infant. Instead of looking at your body and evaluating it against social standards, tune into your body’s needs like a mother with her baby.

Part III – Wax On, Wax Off

Chapter 6: Connect

  • The authors argue that, like food, social connectedness nourishes us, as connection is a biological need. It regulates our heart rate and respiration, activates positive emotions, improves our immune systems, and reduces stress.
    • A meta-analysis found that social isolation and loneliness increased a person’s likelihood of death by up to 30%.
    • Recent research has found that internal states are contagious, meaning that we are susceptible to shifting our moods in accordance with the people around us.
  • The first wave of feminism considered independence as the ideal. But we now see that this can backfire. We need a connection to be autonomous. Additionally, research has found that those with worse marital quality have worse physiological and mental health and shorter life expectancy.
    • People with higher marital quality are more likely to heal injuries and wounds faster, let chronic pain interfere less with quality of life, engage in healthier behaviors, and tend to take better care of themselves.
  • To have a healthy social connection, we need:
  1. Trust: feeling like the other person is there for us as we are there for them. Lack of trust has been found to activate stress responses.
  2. Connected-knowing: understanding an idea by exploring it within its context (as opposed to separated-knowing, which separates an idea from its context and assesses it in terms of external rules, such as scientific research).
    • Connected-knowing is connecting with other people, learning about them, and understanding the experiences that led to their identities.
    • Women are more likely than men to seek connected-knowing. Yet, society has insisted that women should develop their identities through the pursuit of achievement rather than through relationships. Pathology can come from dismissing women’s innate desire to search for themselves through connection.
  • To prevent and combat burnout, embrace your natural tendency to seek others, especially people who help you grow.
  • When experiencing negative emotions such as sadness, despair, or loneliness, know that you need connection.

Chapter 7: What Makes You Stronger

  • Rest makes you stronger. Rest doesn’t necessarily mean sleep (although sleep is a big part of recovery). It involves switching from one type of activity to another.
  • Humans need work and rest. We are healthier when we engage in a prudent amount of both. And, the more appropriate our rest, the more productive we are.
  • Note that when you’re resting, your brain is still working, but there’s little difference between how much energy we spend when awake working hard and when we’re asleep.
    • While you sleep, your bones, blood vessels, digestive system, muscles, and body tissue heal from the damage you’veinflicted on them during the day.
    • Inadequate sleep is associated with lower emotional intelligence, poorer marital satisfaction, and worsened overall health.
    • Sleep deprivation impairs brain functioning, including memory, short and long-term attention spans, decision-making, hand-and-eye coordination, calculation accuracy, logical reasoning, and creativity. It can also lead to death.
  • Cultural and social norms and expectations have equalized sleeping to being unproductive or lazy. People tend to be proud of not sleeping as a way to showcase how hard they work. But not sleeping is extremely dangerous.
  • Active rest is also vital to recovering from or preventing burnout. Your brain is like any muscle. If it is not used, it will atrophy. If it is overworked, it will get fatigued. But if it gets worked and rested, it will grow stronger.
  • Research suggests that we should spend 42% of our time resting. This percentage includes sleep (about 8 hours a day) and active rest (e.g., a hobby, physical activity, etc.)

Chapter 8: Grow Mighty

  • We all have an inner critic. Having control over that voice in our heads can lead to greater joy, health, stronger relationships, and a greater capacity to cope when struggling or dealing with burnout.
    • Taking from the book Jane Eyre, the authors rely on the metaphor of having a madwoman trapped in the attic to explain that we all have a voice in our heads constantly reminding us of our failures and weaknesses.
  • Even though it is uncomfortable, this inner critic serves a purpose: it helps us bridge our actual and ought selves. Yet, sometimes, it gets out of control.
  • The authors recommend describing your madwoman in the attic to help cope with the effects of a demanding inner critic.
    • What does she look like? What’s her history? What does she say to you? What are her feelings and thoughts? When is she the most critical of you? Answering these questions can help you determine some of the sources of your exhaustion.
    • Personifying your madwoman allows you to separate yourself from her to create a dynamic where you can develop a relationship as if she were a friend. It will enable connected-knowing.
    • Turning toward your internal experiences with kindness and compassion can be more healing than positive reappraisal. Turn to your inner self-critic with kindness and compassion, and thank her for the work that she has done.
  • Self-criticism and perfectionism are associated with burnout.
    • We tend to engage in self-criticism in two main instances: when we fail and when we succeed, the latter of which is more dangerous.
    • Many of us are also prone to toxic perfectionism – a maladaptive strategy to cope with stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suppressed rage.
  • The opposite of self-criticism and toxic perfectionism is self-compassion. It reduces depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and improves overall life satisfaction.
  • A lot of women find self-compassion challenging. The authors identify three main reasons:
    • We believe that if we’re not harsh with ourselves, we won’t be capable of achieving what we have been achieving so far.
      • But that’s the opposite of what research has found. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are associated with greater physical and mental well-being, without a decrease in motivation.
    • We have found ways to mask our pain (e.g., alcohol consumption) because healing hurts. When you break a bone, the pain doesn’t stop once you get treatment; the healing process also hurts. In the same way, it hurts to heal your emotions and burnout.
    • We are scared of healing, becoming stronger, and, therefore, having more responsibilities. But, the result of practicing self-compassion is that you grow mightier, still being capable of dealing with your needs.
  • Referencing Pixar’s Inside Out, the authors point out that even negative emotions are necessary. In this movie, sadness made people empathize with the main character, Riley.
  • Gratitude is associated with greater health. However, gratitude is not about ignoring problems.
  • To practice the gratitude that will actually help you grow mightier, think about the following:
    • Who you have in your life: Remember the people who have helped and loved you, seeking and wanting the best for you.
    • How things have happened in your life: Think of an event you’re grateful for and write about it. Give the event a title. Write down what happened, including the details about who was involved and what they said. Then, describe how it made you feel (then and now), and finally, explain how the event or circumstance came to be.
    • You can do this for three events every day for a week or one event per day for three weeks.

Conclusion: Joyfully Ever After

  • The authors highlight that they didn’t mention happiness in their book. While its context is unusual, they note that they did talk about joy. This is because happiness is predicated on things that happen. And joy arises from an internal clarity about your purpose.
  • When you engage with Something Larger, you make meaning. And that’s joy.
  • Joy doesn’t come from within or from independence. It comes from connection with fellow others.
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