The word ‘burnout’ comes up A LOT in my Counselling room. So I thought I’d do a bit of extra reading to see what the latest research is saying about it. Here is a short book review of ‘Burnout – The secret to unlocking the stress cycle’ by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.

The book starts with the line “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by doing everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing enough”. I can see hands going up everywhere with women who can no doubt identify with this!

What is burnout?

We all have an intuitive sense of what burnout is and how it feels in our bodies, and there appears to be 3 components:

  • Emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long
  • Depersonalisation – the depletion of emapthy, caring and compassion
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment – a sense of futility

Internal Resources

The authors describe 3 internal resources that we carry with us, that can help prevent burnout

  1. The stress response cycle
  2. Our internal ‘monitor’ which is our brain mechanism that controls frustration
  3. Meaning in life

Taking each one in turn I will briefly summarise some of the key ideas of the book. Needless to say, I will not be doing the book justice and I can recommend getting hold of a copy if this summary hits a chord with you.

The Stress Response Cycle

Life is full of stressors. Biologically we are programmed to see off a threat with our fight, flight, freeze mechanism . But in the modern-day, so often we lurch from one stressful situation to another without having a chance to get rid of the stress. Often, we get a chance to deal with the stressor, but we have leftover stress still in us.

So we have to learn how to deal with the stress by completing the natural cycle. Physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the cycle – it could be jumping up and down or having a cry – whatever helps to ‘complete the cycle’. Social strategies to complete the cycle are also helpful, such as a hug, a kiss, creative self-expression such as dancing, writing, or singing. This creates a state of wellness, which allows us to move fluidly through the cycles of being human.

Our Internal Monitor

Your brain has a built-in mechanism to assess when it’s time to quit. This is a useful resource for managing burnout if we learn to listen to it! Frustration happens when our progress towards a goal feels more difficult than we expected it to be. A useful strategy for managing frustration is to use your normal problem-solving strategies for stressors you can control. For those that you can’t control – use positive reappraisal. This means choosing the right time to give up, which might be now or might be never; either way the active choice puts you back in control.

Meaning in Life

Finding meaning in life is good for you. You make meaning by engaging with something that is larger than yourself. This might be ambitious goals, loving relationships, or a spiritual element to your life. Meaning enhances well-being when you are doing well. It can be a real lifesaver when you are struggling.

The game is rigged

The authors go on to describe ‘The Human Giver Syndrome’ where women are expected to have a moral obligation to give every drop of themselves to support others, no matter what the cost to themselves. They suggest that the game is rigged, with impossible standards being set for women.

Sources of Strength

So, within this framework of our culture, how can we help ourselves through and avoid burnout? The science says:

  • Connection – with friends, family, pets, the divine etc is as necessary as food and water for humans. We are constantly co-regulating and attuning with each other, which helps us to feel seen and heard. If you experience sadness, rage and the sense of ‘not being enough’, seek connection with others
  • Rest – We will literally die without rest. We are not built to continually persist. We need to go back and forth between rest and effort. If we don’t rest our health can suffer when our bodies literally revolt and force us to take the time. Living within the culture of ‘human giver syndrome’ we sometimes feel self-indulgent resting. The authors say reclaim your rest and claim control over your own life!
  • Self-compassion – Self-compassion and gratitude empower us to recognize the difference betweem who we are and who the world expects us to be, without beating ourselves up for it.

So thank you to Emily & Amelia Nagoski, the twins who wrote this book. Certainly something to think about in my own life, and some great resources to bring into Counselling sessions. The layout of the book is great too, with each chapter ending with a useful tl:dr (too long, didn’t read) summary. I wish all books would have this, as it helps consolidate the new knowledge.

The endnote about which typeface was used in the book, which was ‘Galliard’, really appealed to me. It certainly turned out to be an easy to read font.  To me, fonts are really important – if the writing is too small or hard to read in books, I find that I can’t take in what I’m reading.  And when that happens, my attention might start drifting off – but at least I will be catching up on my rest, which we now know is an essential part of avoiding burnout!

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