Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
About halfway through the fall semester, I learned about a book called “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. I was fortunate that the podcast I was listening to (Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast) gave me the basics I needed to at least start to apply some of the concepts to help me overcome completely losing it during the insane semester that was Fall 2020. But I wanted to be sure I followed up and got the whole picture, so during winter break I finally cracked “Burnout” open.
I didn’t realize at the outset that this book is geared toward women. Being a woman, that was certainly helpful for me, but I also planned to read this book with the intention of sharing what I learned here, because, let’s face it, burnout is not far off for a lot of us right now. Hopefully the downtime of the holidays helped some, but the downtime from school is often replaced with its own stressors.
Dr. Bill Burns’ recent post on burnout covers some of the same things I found in this book, and since he’s said a lot of it already, I’m not going to go into a recap on what burnout is and the stages of burnout.
Regardless of its focus on women, there were plenty of gems in this book that apply to everyone, and those the concepts I’m going to touch on below. If you’re interested in learning more about specific concerns women face or the research cited to back up what the Nagoski sisters share, I recommend you snag yourself a copy. The 200 or so pages flew by relatively quickly.
Stress Versus Stressors
A concept I hadn’t thought much about before reading this book was the difference between dealing with stress and dealing with the stressor. Stressors come in all shapes and sizes, and some can actually be good for us (think of those stressors that motivate us to try harder or do our best), but regardless of where the stress comes from, we need to complete the cycle of stress after it has presented itself.
“Stress is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter [a perceived] threat” (p 4). Once our body has entered this state, it needs to release from it, which is what the Nagoski sisters call completing the cycle. Sometimes this happens on its own, such as when you finish a big presentation and celebrate afterwards with some friends. Other times it doesn’t, such as when you swallow your words in a tense meeting and stew about them for hours (maybe days?) afterwards.
“Burnout” presents us with seven evidence-based strategies to complete the cycle. These strategies may look familiar, because many are prevention strategies that Dr. Burns mentioned in his blog post!
The strategies are:
- Breathing: taking deep, slow breaths that expand your stomach for even only a minute can make a difference.
- Positive Social Interaction: chatting with someone, complimenting someone, or even saying “have a good day” can be helpful in signaling to our body that the world is a safe place again.
- Laughter: it’s got to be real laughter, though, so reminisce with a friend or put in a movie you can’t help but laugh at.
- Affection: this can be conversation with someone your care about or physical affection.
- A Big Ol’ Cry: let the tears flow, or read a book or put on a movie that will let you cry the frustration out.
- Creative Expression: let the feelings out of your body through painting, dancing, singing, or even coloring.
- Physical Activity: you saw this one coming a mile away, because it’s well known now that exercise of any kind has all sorts of mental health benefits. It is “the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle” (p 14).
Being mindful of when our stress cycle hasn’t completed means we can choose to put these strategies into action. And it’s important to note that these are all activities that involve doing something. “Completing the cycle isn’t an intellectual decision; it’s a physiological shift” (p 20). The book also discussed how our stress piles up (shocking, I know). Practicing these strategies regularly means we’re helping to unlock years, maybe decades of stress that’s been stuck in our bodies.
Persisting Versus Quitting
Another concept presented in the book is the concept of The Monitor. The Monitor is that part of you that “knows (1) what your goal is; (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal; and (3) how much progress you’re making” (p 31). When our progress is low but our investment is high, our stress increases. Oftentimes, when our progress is low, it is because of things that are out of our control, like an accident on the highway that has us stuck in traffic or looming deadlines.
Here are a few strategies for dealing with these sorts of situations:
- Planful Problem-Solving: prepare ahead of time for things that could possibly go wrong (though not on an obsessive level). Examples might be having your GPS or phone handy to punch in an alternate route or other ways of controlling what you can control.
- Positive Reappraisal: shift how you’re thinking about things. This is especially important when a lot or all of your control has been stripped away. This “means deciding that the effort, the discomfort, the frustration, the unanticipated obstacles, and even the repeated failure have value…” (p 32-3).
- Redefine Winning: re-evaluate and adjust your Monitor’s expectation about the time it takes for progress to be met. If you’re an actor, for example, you need to prepare your monitor for rejection after rejection, otherwise you’d give up after you don’t get a job off your first audition.
- Redefine Failing: this one is hard, and requires us to examine where we’re at inside a “failure” and see what we can remake that failure into. An example provided in the book is the founder of Post-It Notes, who started off trying to make a really strong glue, but ended up making a really weak glue that he found a great use for (p 40).
- Knowing When to Give Up: this is another hard one, but the book presents a method for digging into deciding if you should look into making a course correction. It’s by using a decisional balance sheet. From here you end up making a choice to either continue or not, and regardless of whichever one you make, you’re making a decision, which moves you forward. To do this you write out four questions and answer each one as completely as possible, and then evaluate your answers (p 44-5):
- What are the benefits of continuing?
- What are the benefits of stopping?
- What are the costs of continuing?
- What are the costs of stopping?
In an effort to keep this post from going on forever, there are a few other concepts the book touches on that I would like to tease for your benefit. They all connect in some way to stress and therefore the potential for burnout. Again, Dr. Burns goes into more detail on some of these in his post. They are:
- Meaning: having meaning in our lives drives us and can be a source of resilience. Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, identified three ways we can discover meaning in our lives:
- By creating a work or doing a deed
- By experiencing something or encountering someone
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
- Recognize that the game might be rigged, either for or against you: there are systems in place that can increase stressors for one group over another. Remembering the game is rigged can help make difficulties a little more bearable (though certainly not acceptable). Don’t allow yourself to be gaslighted.
- We Are Wired to Connect: we can be autonomous people with our own identities, but we also need positive connection with others. Several of the strategies to completing the stress cycle involve or can involve other people.
- Rest: it’s important and we should be spending at least 42% of our time resting, meaning sleeping, exercising, connecting, eating, or just hanging out.
- Engage in Self-Compassion and Gratitude: if you heard someone say something terrible to a friend, you would be enraged at your friend being in pain. You know their pain would affect them and how they accomplish tasks. So, why do we say terrible things to ourselves and expect that it will somehow help us do better?
There was a LOT more included in this book, and far more in-depth explanations into the concepts I shared above, and if you have the chance I recommend you read the book. Completing the stress cycle is the bulk of what is covered in Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast episode with the Nagoski sisters, but they also touch on a few of the other concepts mentioned above, and even some that I didn’t touch on in this blog post. The episode is about an hour long.
Do you have other methods of completing the stress cycle? Other thoughts about stress and burnout? Share them below in the comments.
Nagoski, A., & Nagoski, E. (2019). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballantine Books.
About the Authors:
Amy Tichy is pursuing her M.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at NDSU. She graduated with a Master of Arts in Theatre with a concentration in Drama Therapy from Kansas State University (2014), where she was a Graduate Teaching Assistant, lecturing 6 credits of Public Speaking per semester, and with a Bachelor of Science in History Education and Theatre Education from Dickinson State University (2010). Amy is a Registered Drama Therapist. She works in the Office of Teaching and Learning as a Graduate Assistant.