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Burnout: Emily Nagoski Reveals the Secret to a Happier Life

Emily Nagoski is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller - “Come as You Are” — a book about female sexuality. In her new book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”, Emily Nagoski explains how to fight burnout to live a much happier life. That’s why Flo invited Emily Nagoski to write an article for this website, share her knowledge, and shed some light on the infrequently talked about topic of burnout. If you want to dive deeper into the topic, please feel free to check out a new video course in the Flo app created in collaboration with Emily Nagoski. After watching the course, you’ll understand the nature of burnout and learn how to cope with it effectively. 

When my twin sister and I told women we were writing a book called Burnout, nobody ever asked, “What’s burnout?” (Mostly what they said was, “Is it out yet? Can I read it?”) We all have an intuitive sense of what “burnout” is; we know how it feels in our bodies and how our emotions crumble in the grip of it. But when it was first coined as a technical term by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, “burnout” was defined 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
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment — an unconquerable sense of futility or feeling that nothing you do makes any difference. 

And here’s an understatement: Burnout is highly prevalent. In America, 20 to 30 percent of teachers have moderately high to high levels of burnout. Similar rates are found among university professors and international humanitarian aid workers. Among medical professionals, burnout can be as high as 52 percent. Nearly all the research on burnout is on professional burnout — specifically “people who help people,” like teachers and nurses — but a growing area of research is “parental burnout.”

In the 40 years since the original formulation, research has found it’s the first element in burnout, emotional exhaustion, that’s most strongly linked to negative impacts on our health, relationships, and work — especially for women. 

Okay, so if burnout is “emotional exhaustion,” what exactly is an “emotion,” and how do you exhaust it?

Emotions, at their most basic level, involve the release of neurochemicals in the brain in response to some stimulus. You see the person you have a crush on across the room, your brain releases a bunch of chemicals, and that triggers a cascade of physiological changes — your heart beats faster, your hormones shift, and your stomach flutters. You take a deep breath and sigh. Your facial expression changes; maybe you blush; even the timbre of your voice becomes warmer. Your thoughts shift to memories of the crush and fantasies about the future, and you suddenly feel an urge to cross the room and say hi. Just about every system in your body responds to the chemical and electrical cascade activated by the sight of the person.

That’s emotion. It’s automatic and instantaneous. It happens everywhere, and it affects everything.

And it’s happening all the time — we feel many different emotions simultaneously, even in response to one stimulus. You may feel an urge to approach your crush, but also, simultaneously, feel an urge to turn away and pretend you didn’t notice them.

Left to their own devices, emotions — these instantaneous, whole-body reactions to some stimulus — will end on their own. Your attention shifts from your crush to some other topic, and the flush of infatuation eases, until that certain special someone crosses your mind or your path once more. The same goes for the jolt of pain you feel when someone is cruel to you or the flash of disgust when you smell something unpleasant. They just end.

In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end.

Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.

We may get stuck for all kinds of reasons:

  • We may get stuck simply because we’re constantly being exposed to situations that activate emotion — our crush is there, all day, every day, even if only in our thoughts, and so we’re trapped in our own longing.
  • Or we return to our emotional job every single day. No wonder “helping professions” are so exhausting — you’re confronted with people in need all day, day after day. You’re always going through the tunnel.
  • Or you routinely find yourself in situations, at work or in your personal life — or both — where you can’t go through the tunnel because the people around you expect you to sit politely and smile benignly and do your best, while your body stews in stress juice. “No, no, it’s fine. I’m fine. This is fine,” you say, from the darkness of the middle of the tunnel.
  • Sometimes we get stuck because we can’t find our way through. The most difficult feelings — rage, grief, despair, helplessness — may be too treacherous to move through alone. We get lost and need someone else, a loving presence, to help us find our way.

 And so many other reasons.

What we discovered in the process of writing the book is that emotions aren’t the only tunnel where we get stuck. To be human is to live in service of a mammalian body that demands the freedom to move through all the tunnels, the cycles, and the oscillations of being alive. Your body needs you to breathe in, and then it needs you to breathe out. We are built to oscillate through the cycle. It needs you to eat and then digest. You have to go all the way through the cycle and then go through it again and again and again, all your life. Your body needs sleep and rest, but it doesn’t need or even want to stay in a state of perpetual quiet; it wants you to work and create and then rest, again and again, your whole life. Your body even needs you to oscillate from autonomy to deep emotional connection, and back again, over and over, all your life. We are not built to stay perpetually in connection with others, and we are not built to be perpetually alone. We are built to move through times of autonomy back to connection, again and again.

Wellness, we found, is not a state of being or a state of mind. It is a state of action. It is moving freely through all the tunnels, cycles, and oscillations of being human.

It’s obvious, once you stop to think about it. If burnout is emotional exhaustion, and emotional exhaustion is getting stuck … then “wellness” can’t be a perpetual state of anything. That’s just getting stuck somewhere else.

But we’ve been lied to about this our whole lives. You probably have been too. “Wellness” has probably been sold to you as a destination to reach, a goal to achieve, if only you exercise enough and drink all the green smoothies, color your coloring books, practice self-compassion and mindfulness and gratitude … you’ve probably tried a lot of it. So have we. And sometimes it helps, at least for a while. But then the kids are struggling in school or our partner needs support through a difficulty or a new work project lands in our laps, and we think, I’ll do the self-care thing as soon as I finish this.

The world has turned “wellness” into yet another goal everyone “should” strive for, but only people with time and money and nannies and yachts and Oprah’s phone number can actually achieve.

It is not.

Wellness is a state of action. It is having the freedom to move through all the tunnels inherent to living in a human body.

Again, it’s obvious once you stop to think about it.

It’s not self-care. It can’t be. If you’re stuck, it’s rarely easy to remove the obstacles that are blocking your path to freedom.

No, the cure for burnout is instead all of us caring for each other.

It is noticing that somebody is stuck and looking for ways to clear their path through the tunnel. And it is noticing that you are stuck and being willing to ask for and accept help.

This is the surprising conclusion we came to over the course of writing the book together. It’s what we wrote about, and it’s how we wrote it, turning toward each other’s difficult feelings with kindness and compassion. When one of us got stuck, the other helped her get free.

If you remember nothing else, remember this, the ultimate “moral of the story” of the book “Burnout” by Emily Nagoski: When you think you need more grit, what you need is more help. When you think you need more discipline, what you need is more kindness. And when you think someone else needs more grit, what they need is more help. And when you think someone else needs more discipline, what they need is more kindness.

Don’t forget to check out the course “Recover from Burnout with Emily Nagoski” in the Flo app for more practical tips on coping with burnout. See you there!  

 

[i] Herbert J. Freudenberger, “The staff burn-out syndrome in alternative institutions,” Psychotherapy Theory Research and Practice 12 (January 1975): 73–82.

[ii] Daniel Hultell, Bo Melin, and J. Petter Gustavsson, “Getting personal with teacher burnout: A longitudinal study on the development of burnout using a person-based approach,” Teaching and Teacher Education 32 (2013): 75–86; Barbara Larrivee, Cultivating Teacher Renewal: Guarding against Stress and Burnout (R&L Education, 2012).

[iii] Jenny Watts and Noelle Robertson, “Burnout in university teaching staff: A systematic literature review,” Educational Research 53, no. 1 (2011): 33–50; Barbara Lopes Cardozo, Carol Gotway Crawford, Cynthia Eriksson, Julia Zhu, Miriam Sabin, Alastair Ager, David Foy et al., “Psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and burnout among international humanitarian aid workers: A longitudinal study,” PlOS One 7, no. 9 (2012): e44948.

[iv] P. Blanchard, D. Truchot, L. Albiges-Sauvin, S. Dewas, Y. Pointreau, M. Rodrigues, A. Xhaard et al., “Prevalence and causes of burnout amongst oncology residents: A comprehensive nationwide cross-sectional study,” European Journal of Cancer 46, no. 15 (2010): 2708–15;
Imo, Udemezue O. "Burnout and psychiatric morbidity among doctors in the UK: a systematic literature review of prevalence and associated factors." BJPsych bulletin 41, no. 4 (2017): 197-204.; Jef Adriaenssens, Véronique De Gucht, and Stan Maes, “Determinants and prevalence of burnout in emergency nurses: A systematic review of 25 years of research.” International Journal of Nursing Studies 52, no. 2 (2015): 649–61; Yousef Moradi, Hamid Reza Baradaran, Maryam Yazdandoost, Shahla Atrak, and Maryam Kashanian, “Prevalence of burnout in residents of obstetrics and gynecology: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran 29, no. 4 (2015): 235; Tait D. Shanafelt, Sonja Boone, Litjen Tan, Lotte N. Dyrbye, Wayne Sotile, Daniel Satele, Colin P. West et al., “Burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance among US physicians relative to the general US population,” Archives of Internal Medicine 172, no. 18 (2012): 1377–85.
Another meta-analysis found a range of burnout among ICU professionals between 0 and 70 percent. M. M. van Mol, E. J. Kompanje, D. D. Benoit, J. Bakker, M. D. Nijkamp, M.D., “The prevalence of compassion fatigue and burnout among healthcare professionals in intensive care units: A systematic review. PLOS One 10, no. 8 (2015): e0136955.

[v] Isabelle Roskam, Marie-Emilie Raes, and Moïra Mikolajczak, “Exhausted parents: Development and preliminary validation of the parental burnout inventory,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017): 163.

[vi] Radostina K. Purvanova and John P. Muros, “Gender differences in burnout: A meta-analysis,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 77, no. 2 (2010): 168–85.

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