“Burnout – the secret of unlocking the stress cycle” by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski is probably the book I have recommended most to online counselling clients and friends alike over the past few months. I first heard about it when a colleague suggested it for our Location Independent Therapists book club last year and have been meaning to write a blog post about it ever since.
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash
But before we talk about the book, let’s back up a bit and take a look at the concept of burnout itself. It’s a very common issue and often gets addressed in ways that aren’t helpful – and sometimes, just plain wrong. Whether it’s the notion that “if you burn out it means you are weak”, or the idea that “burnout is a badge you wear with honour as it shows you really burned for something”, it’s an important topic for us all to discuss and understand.
When we first started talking about burnout it was mostly in the context of helping professionals, but over the past few years, it’s become a widely known and researched phenomenon. A range of surveys and studies show that it’s not a rare phenomenon at all. In fact, burnout has become so well known that the World Health Organization recently added it to their 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon. Burnout has also been a recurring topic on my blog, including this not so serious but very popular quick guide on how to burn out in a few simple steps and some tips for avoiding burnout as digital nomads.
While burnout is a very common issue, it’s also one that affects women in a different way than men – due to the idea of gender norms and society’s expectations – in addition to the much-discussed mental load.
So, what is burnout?
Burnout is a state of exhaustion and fatigue that doesn’t go away after a rest or a vacation. It makes it hard for us to take care of ourselves, to work, to enjoy life, and, at the same time, while we are experiencing this state, we tend to push ourselves to do more and feel guilty that we can’t. We can experience burnout due to an exhausting work environment, but also due to domestic and personal situations. The pandemic has definitely not helped.
One of the most comprehensive works out there today on the topic of burnout is the appropriately titled Burnout by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, the latter a renowned author for her non-fiction books, including her bestseller Come As You Are. While the book is inspired by the authors’ own experiences, it also features a solid scientific foundation that helps us not only understand burnout but also recover from it.
The book Burnout explores the origins of our current state of exhaustion and links it to the short-term nature of stress during the early stages of our evolution and how today our stresses go on and on, unresolved. It also effectively addresses what we need in order to overcome this vicious cycle – through connection with those around us and physical activity.
In particular, the authors suggest that burnout is, in short, getting stuck in a cycle of stress. Stress becomes a constant presence with a strong physical impact – it wears our body down, changes our blood pressure, heart rate, and more.
So, do we need more “me time” and bubble baths? Not really. While those won’t hurt, it’s also become one of those oversimplified ways of looking at self-care and burnout that’s hurting us more than it’s helping.
Dealing with the stressor vs. the stress reaction
One of my main take-aways from this book – and something I have been sharing with many of my online counselling clients – is that there is indeed a difference between dealing with the stressor and dealing with the stress response itself. Sure, it’s important to tackle our stressors, fix the things that need fixing and confront our issues. But it’s also important, and, in regards to burnout, maybe even more so, to complete the stress cycle on a more physical level. Way too often, dealing with the stressor actually means that we don’t get to complete the stress cycle because the best response is to not say anything, to not attack, to not lash out. But where does all that built-up stress go and how do we release it?
That’s where the concept of “completing the stress cycle” comes in.
Some of the solutions offered for completing the stress cycle include moderate physical activity for 20 to 40 minutes, positive and fun social interactions like hugging, cuddling or laughing together, and creative expression.
Activities to complete the stress cycle
Which one of these activities do you do in order to complete your own stress cycle and which ones would you like to try out more frequently? Rember, this is not about handling the stressor but about completing the physical stress response, sometimes long after the situation that provoked a stress response has passed.
- physical activity
- deep slow breathing
- positive social interaction
- laughter, affection
- cathartic crying
- creative self-expression
Another important topic addressed in this book is “Human Giver Syndrome”, which is:
“the contagious (but false) belief that some people (usually women) have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others – these are the Human Givers […] it can also explain a primary reason why so many women get stuck in their emotions; Human Givers aren’t allowed to have “needs”.”
If you’d like to hear more about this topic, you can take a look at a podcast from leading researcher on vulnerability and shame, Brene Brown, that addresses the issue of burnout. She discusses the topic of burnout and the stress cycle in an interview that gives insight into the core themes and solutions in the book. You can listen to “Unlocking Us” here.
In summary, Burnout is a must-read for every woman who is tired and overwhelmed and can’t seem to stop feeling this way. While the book focuses on the experiences of women and the structural issues they face especially, it addresses burnout in a way that can really benefit anyone. With a solid scientific foundation and practical solutions, it can help you understand and manage your burnout, as well as prevent it from occurring in the first place.
Have you read this book or know of any other good books on the topic of burnout? Share them in the comments!
Book recommendation: Burnout