The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle
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About Emily Nagoski
Emily Nagoski began her career as a sex educator in 1995 when she became a peer health educator at the University of Delaware. She was trained to teach her fellow undergraduates about stress and physical activity. She went to Indiana University for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology, completing clinical internships at the Kinsey Institute Sexual Health Clinic and the IU GLBT Student Support Services Office. Nagoski continued on to earn a Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a concentration in human sexuality.
For eight years, she worked as a lecturer and Director of Wellness Education at Smith College, before transitioning to full-time writing and speaking. She now travels all over, training professionals and teaching college students.
Burnout aims to explain the primary causes of one of the worst health crises in the modern world: emotional exhaustion. The authors argue that stressors are part of life, but most of us struggle to break a stress cycle. Staying within a state of stress for long periods without breaking it up with exercise, social connections and rest will lead to overexhaustion. Burnout aims to help readers understand which stressors can be controlled and how you can go about controlling them.
StoryShot #1: Try to Close the Stress Cycle
Stress is a neurological and physiological response that is generally associated with threat. The purpose of these responses is to help you run away from these threats. This is why the first hormone released during threatening situations is epinephrine, which pushes blood into the muscles. This blood movement leads to a higher blood pressure and faster heart rate. To help preserve energy, the body chooses to slow digestion and reproduction.
The issue with this is that it is easy to get stuck in the emotion of stress, which Nagoski calls the stress cycle. If the emotion of stress takes over your life, then your body will struggle to deal with these constant stress responses. Your blood pressure will remain high, leaving you at risk of heart disease. Your body will also heal slower, as your immune and digestive systems will be constantly slow. All of these signs point to our need to close the stress cycle.
One effective way of closing your stress cycle is exercising. Moderate physical activity for 20 to 60 minutes will help shift your mood and tackle your body’s stress response. This is because, after exercising, your muscles relax and you feel the shift from breathing heavily to taking deep and slower breaths. This should provide you with an emotional release.
An alternative to physical exercise would be creatively expressing yourself. This might be in the form of painting, singing, playing an instrument, or sculpting. These expressions can be complemented by completing them with other people. Positive social interactions, especially those that suggest a return to safety (e.g. hugs and laughter), will help you close your stress cycle.
StoryShot #2: Fight Stress by Building Your Resilience
To fight stress you have to start developing resilience and persistence. One of the most effective ways of doing so is knowing what you want and having your life aligned with these wants. That said, you must also align your life with something bigger than yourself. Meaning is the best antidote to stress.
This idea that meaning is the key to happiness was introduced by the psychologist Martin Seligman. Crucially, meaning is also the key to coping within the stressful world we live in. The authors argued there’s no right or wrong meaning to identify for yourself. The only important feature is that individuals are aligned with a deeper sense of meaning, leading to them living more fulfilled lives.
The Human Giver Syndrome is the best way to find your meaning in life. Human givers are individuals who are expected to devote their time, attention and bodies to others. These others are then able to express their individuality because of the sacrifice of the first individual. The authors highlight that women are generally the individuals that suffer most from Human Giver Syndrome. Society raises women who naturally fall into a giver role rather than prioritizing themselves first. That said, the authors believe that this syndrome is not placed in reality. It is only based on your beliefs and meaning. So, don’t let others punish you for finding your own meaning rather than falling into Human Giver Syndrome.
StoryShot #3: Emotional Exhaustion Leads to Burnout
It can be emotionally exhausting trying to meet your own demands and expectations. Adding to this, the expectations in your workplace and by your family and friends can push you over the edge from stress toward emotional exhaustion.
Once you have become emotionally exhausted you can struggle with depersonalization. This is when you are struggling to maintain your compassion and empathy for others. Emotional exhaustion is also characterized by a decreased sense of accomplishment. This decreased sense of accomplishment is a feeling that nothing you do matters.
The authors describe the journey toward emotional exhaustion as being like a tunnel. You will become emotionally drained and will soon be in the middle of the tunnel. You will have been experiencing the same difficult emotions every day. As there is no satisfactory end to that feeling, you can become stuck in the emotional tunnel with no relief. This is how you become burned out.
StoryShot #4: Rest Helps You Avoid Exhaustion
Effective rest is the key to tackling exhaustion. The authors believe that the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is completely outdated. This is the mindset that leaves workforces exhausted. There is a fine line between working hard and being overworked. The latter is associated with several poor health measures and will ultimately reduce your efficiency and effectiveness at work.
So, instead of continually pushing yourself beyond the expected, you have to sometimes take a rest to recover from your built-up fatigue. This can come in the form of making sure you get enough sleep. But, it might also be taking breaks consistently while at work. The authors highlight that resting in between tasks means you will likely be able to spend twice as much time on your next task without experiencing fatigue.
As well as preventing fatigue, rest can actually improve your ability to find innovative work ideas. Your brain is more active when you are resting, so it will be better equipped to think of solutions. These solutions may be difficult to identify while working on a task, but easily come to you while you rest. You can still be productive while resting, like folding your laundry or cleaning your home. The authors explain that they wrote this book while switching between writing fiction and nonfiction. She did this because these tasks require different parts of the brain. So, she was keeping her brain active in the hope that this would encourage imagination and effective working, while also switching up the tasks so she would feel refreshed rather than burnt out.
The authors use an analogy to highlight the importance of rest. Physical exercise is frequently identified as a great way to improve your fitness levels, stay healthy and build muscle. That said, the benefits of exercise are created while you sleep. The same is true for mental activity. The information we have learned from the day before is processed and consolidated while we rest.
So, a key part of being efficient and productive is knowing when you should take time off to relax.
StoryShot #5: Fight Unrealistic Expectations With Facts
Exhaustion is deeply connected with our expectations. For example, you are far more likely to feel frustrated and exhausted if you describe a huge challenge as being super easy. If you are factual about the challenge ahead, you won’t be surprised when you start to struggle, preventing you from experiencing emotional exhaustion on top of physical exhaustion. Expectations determine your frustrations, which means you can manage your frustrations by managing your expectations.
StoryShot #6: The Bikini Industrial Complex
As well as individuals placing unrealistic expectations on themselves, women specifically have expectations forced upon them. The authors call this the Bikini Industrial Complex, which is the expectations that women conform to specific and unattainable body ideals. The reason that the body ideals are unattainable is that the Body Mass Index is often used to assess somebody’s health despite its limitations. Specifically, the BMI was invented by weight-loss clinics to encourage women to keep buying their weight-loss services. So, the Bikini Industrial Complex does not help women improve their wellbeing, it encourages emotional exhaustion and subsequent burnout.
The reality of the Bikini Industrial Complex burnout is shown by a recent study in The Lancet. They found that overweight individuals had lower health risk than those in the low end of the healthy category. So, it seems that the emotional exhaustion associated with meeting unattainable ideals is more harmful than being overweight.
StoryShot #7: We All Need People In Our Lives
Society has started to view independence as a sign of success. We start our lives as dependent children and grow to be the ideal of an independent adult who doesn’t need others to have fulfilment. The authors believe we aren’t going to perform to our best if we are lonely and isolated. That said, we also won’t perform to our best if we are constantly surrounded by others and dependent on their abilities. The perfect balance is having a bit of both. We need to feel connected to others, but we also need time to benefit from our independence.
Connections are a key part of preventing burnout. They provide us with emotional and medical support, as well as offering opportunities to learn by giving us new information. We don’t all have the same demands for connection, though. This will vary from person to person and is often defined by whether we are natural introverts or extroverts. Introverts generally need less connection and require more independence. Extroverts require more connection and less independence.
It is important to point out that not all connections are good. Quality is more important than quantity. For example, studies show that couples with poor marriage quality have poorer physical and mental health, as well as also feeling less satisfied than people who weren’t married. This suggests that connections can have a negative impact if they are of low quality. Even people with chronic illnesses reported a higher quality of life as a result of a good relationship. This is why high quality connections should be encouraged.
StoryShot #8: Use Positive Reappraisal
To tackle stress you have to develop a strong understanding of the difference between stress and stressors. The latter are the things that lead to stress. Once you understand this, you have to identify which of your stressors are controllable and which aren’t. Those you can’t control should be mitigated through things you can control. For example, there will be work stressors that you have to deal with. But, you can prevent these stressors from leading to burnout by scheduling in activities post-work that close this stress cycle. This might come in the form of going to the gym after work.
As well as including experiences that close the stress cycle, positive reappraisal can also counteract stressors. This is reframing a difficult situation to find positive opportunities. This isn’t being optimistic without reasoning to be so. Instead, it is seeking facts and truth about a situation and highlighting how these stressors can be managed.
StoryShot #9: Use Planful Problem-Solving
Controllable stressors can also be managed through planful problem-solving. Planful problem-solving involves analyzing a situation filled with stressors and identifying how you can solve the problem or simply lessen frustration. Although you should always plan to prevent the impact of stressors, the reality is that this and the other tools spoken about won’t always work. If this is the case it is important to remember that the challenges you are facing are likely more rewarding than just taking the easy route. If you are struggling in a difficult situation and cannot problem-solve your way out, you have to remind yourself that you have a better chance for personal growth. This will allow you to avoid burnout.
StoryShot #10: Practice Self-Compassion
The high expectations we and others place on ourselves can lead to significant burnout. Although some self-criticism can help you improve and become a better person, you can quickly shift from productive self-criticism into toxicity. This toxicity will lead to inaction and prevent you from taking the chances required to learn from your mistakes.
To overcome this toxicity, you have to create a vivid image of this toxic version of yourself. You can even name it, helping you to view the toxic voice as something separate from yourself. Once you create this divide you’ll find it easier to not listen to its toxicity. This distance will allow you to start practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion can be challenging as it is a form of healing. All healing is associated with feelings of pain and vulnerability. The important thing to remember is that healing is always good and it does come to a conclusion. Crucially, this healing process will leave you stronger.
Finally, the strength that self-compassion gives you will allow you to be joyful. Happiness is impossible to sustain as it is a fleeting moment rather than a destination. Joy is sustainable by staying self-compassionate and taking time to feel gratitude toward those in your life and your daily events.
Final Review and Analysis
Burnout is an exploration into the factors that can lead to emotional exhaustion and the ways you can tackle these factors. The reality is that life will present us with stressors and emotionally exhausting experiences. It is how we control the controllable stressors and deal with the uncontrollable stressors that determines whether we become burnt out. The key is developing strong positive connections with others, view challenges at face value and tackling stressors by breaking the stress cycle.
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