How do we avoid burnout? Sisters Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA have addressed just that question in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. I found much of the book—especially Part I—valuable, so I’m doing something a little different this week. I’m going to summarize the steps outlined in Burnout to help you avoid burnout in your own life.
Moving forward, direct quotes from the book will have an accompanying page number. Otherwise, know that this entire post is not my own thought, by my summary.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout opens with, “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yest still worried she was not doing ‘enough’” (p. ix).
Although burnout is not an uncommon phrase in our lexicon, you—like me—might struggle to define it.
First coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, he identified “burnout” by three components:
“1. Emotional exhaustion—the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long;
2. depersonalization—the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion; and
3. decreased sense of accomplishment—an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference” (p. xi).
Stress Vs. Stressor: What’s the Difference?
The book differentiates between stress and the stressor. The stressor is the thing that is causing the stress. We can’t always address the stressor, at least not in the short term. Or, on the flip side, the stressor might disappear—but that doesn’t mean we’ve dealt with the stress.
A stressor could be anything from a traffic during your commute to a tense meeting at work to a teething baby who cries all night. Stressors can also be long-term problems that we face, like a family member’s addiction, a health crisis, or a challenging season of marriage or parenting.
Stress is what happens in our body when we encounter a stressor. Stress affects every system in your body: cardiovascular, digestive, hormonal, immune, and more (p. 5).
How Do We Avoid Burnout?
Defining burnout is merely the first step; we must learn how to avoid burnout. But, what if you’re reading this post because you suspect that you are already experiencing burnout? Take heart—the same tools that can help you to avoid burnout will also help you to heal burnout.
That stress has to go somewhere, and authors Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski call this process completing the stress cycle. It’s essential to allowing our body to recover and our systems to return to normal. When our ancestors faced stressors—in the forms of lions chasing them—they could run, and (provided the lion didn’t catch them), they completed the stress cycle when they outran the lion.
The problem with modern life is that, so often, we’re not in a position to release the stress when it occurs. When your kid is throwing a screaming tantrum, everything in you might say “Run!” but you can’t abandon your kid to sort out her Big Feelings all alone. Similarly, if a work meeting is full of tension, you can’t just RUN! So we push down and bottle up those feelings of stress, leading to—you guessed it—burnout.
Complete the Stress Cycle
How do we complete the stress cycle and avoid burnout? Chapter 1 of Burnout identifies a handful of activities that can do just that:
- Physical activity
- Breathing (This is my favorite simple, straightforward resource for breathwork practices.)
- Positive social interaction
- A good cry
- Creative expression
The authors point out that each of these strategies have one thing in common: “You have to do something. One thing we know for sure doesn’t work: just telling yourself that everything is okay now. Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shift” (p. 21).
The Stress Response Cycle Completion Strategies
Physical activity is, by far, “the most efficient way to complete the cycle” (p. 14). The authors explain, “Between twenty and sixty minutes a day does it for most folks. And it should be most days—after all, you experience stress most days, so you should complete the stress response cycle most days, too” (pp. 14-15).
“Positive social interaction” is something I’ve written a lot about, under the headline of “community.” (Check out my posts about building community, Dinner Club, and a girlfriends’ getaway.) It makes sense that connecting with the supportive people in our life would help us to complete the stress response, doesn’t it?
Many of the strategies for completing the stress response cycle are self-explanatory, but I want to expand on one idea using details from the book. On pages 16-17, the authors talk about affection, citing two specific examples of affection that can help to complete the stress cycle.
One is the “six-second kiss,” suggested by relationship researcher John Gottman. “Every day, he suggests, kiss your partner for six seconds. That’s one six-second kiss, mind you, not six one-second kisses. […] Kissing for six seconds requires that you stop and deliberately notice that you like this person, that you trust them, and that you feel affection for them. By noticing these things, the kiss tells your body that you are safe with your tribe” (pp. 16-17).
The other suggestion is a twenty-second hug with someone you love and trust. “[…] Support your own weight, as your partner does the same, and put your arms around each other. Hold on. The research suggests a twenty-second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and improve mood, all of which are reflected in the post-hug increase in the social-bonding hormone oxytocin” (p. 17).
Completing the stress response cycle is just one piece of the puzzle as we avoid burnout (and heal it). Remember, completing the cycle only addresses the stress, not the stressors. I’ve only summarized the first chapter of Burnout here; the rest of the book goes on to highlight the strategies that can help us to address the stressors. I recommend reading the entire book for practical steps (including worksheets) to help you review the stressors in your own life.
For self-care to be helpful, it’s got to be sustainable. Every first Friday in my newsletter, I share a roundup of the month’s blog posts and one sustainable, actionable tip to focus on for the month. Sign up below.