Why we all suffer burnout and tips on how to overcome it

Twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski say we all suffer exhaustion. They offer tips on how to recognise it and overcome it, writes Suzanne Harrington.

What’s your solution to burnout — green smoothies, colouring books, gratitude lists, bubble baths, yoga, spa breaks, scented candles, massages, me time?

Blaming yourself for inefficient time management, despite your incessant activity? If you burn out, is it your own fault?

The answer seems to be yes if you are a woman — so how and why is female burnout different from male burnout? Could the patriarchy be involved? Cultural gaslighting?

Meet Emily and Amelia Nagoski, identical twin sisters with doctorates in human sexual behaviour (Emily) and music (Amelia).

Emily wrote a science book about sex, Come As You Are, to which the strongest readership response was not the chapter about orgasm, but the one about burnout.

Meanwhile, Amelia was repeatedly hospitalised with chronic pain, repeated infections, asthma — all symptoms of burnout.

Together, they wrote a book - Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle — explaining why women experience burnout differently from men, and how to process it without ever picking up a mindfulness colouring book, or being infantalised via suggestions of ‘pampering.’

How to separate the stress from the causes of stress, and how to allow the stress to make its way through your body, rather than lodging there, causing chronic illness. Because it’s not all in the mind.

“Stress is not bad for you,” write the sisters. “Being stuck [in stress] is bad for you.” The problem, they suggest, is not that we aren’t trying.

The problem is 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.

Meanwhile, ordinary mortal women are burning out. Burnout, first coined in 1975 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, is comprised of three aspects — emotional exhaustion (from caring too much, for too long); depersonalisation (the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion); and a decreased sense of accomplishment (futility, feeling nothing you do makes any difference).

Unsurprisingly, it is prevalent among teachers, university lecturers, aid workers, and affects up to 52% of the medical profession.

‘People who help people’ are most likely to suffer from burnout — both professionally and within the family framework. Women, basically.

Men tend not to burn out from simultaneously being expected to look after elderly parents, teenagers, small children, the household, professional clients, and themselves, while still remaining vivacious and looking fabulous. Nope.

That’s more a female thing. Why?

Something called Human Giver Syndrome, defined by philosopher Kate Manne in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, which suggests that one class of people, the human givers, are expected to offer their time, affection, attention and bodies to another class of people, the human beings.

Burnout authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski. The sisters offer straightforward solutions on overcoming burnout based on science rather than scented candles.
Burnout authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski. The sisters offer straightforward solutions on overcoming burnout based on science rather than scented candles.

You can guess which class belongs to which gender. (It’s why we expect senior politicians to bake cookies if they’re female, or why women generally do the majority of household and childcare labour even when in full time paid employment outside the home.)

In other words, say the Nagoski sisters, the game is rigged. As well as women being encouraged to have spa days and mini breaks rather than tackle the root cause of their burnout, even the way the subject is researched does not reflect the female experience — because the majority of research into stress uses male participants.

There’s a big difference between executive burnout and domestic burnout; yet women can experience both simultaneously.

“We live in a deeply sexist world,” Emily tells me.

Amelia cuts in: “It’s good for capitalism and for the patriarchy for women to be too tired and burnt out to create change.”

Back to Emily: “Yet it’s seen as a personal failing, society has more compassion for men. It’s called himpathy, as though women don’t deserve care, but should just get on with it.” (Ah yes. Manflu).

“We need to bridge the chasm — pole vault it — between who a woman is, and who she is meant to be,” says Amelia.

The solution to burnout is not self care — it’s all of us caring about each other.

They debunk the popular idea that we women are our own worst enemy, saying instead that the real enemy “is the game itself, which tries to convince us that it’s not the enemy.”

In other words, being conditioned from birth to care and nurture others and be eternally self-sacrificing, but only if you are born with a vagina.

The Nagoskis offer straightforward solutions based on science rather than scented candles.

First, we need to understand the stress cycle so we don’t get stuck in it, which is what causes the long term harm to health.

Stress is a cascade of neurological and hormonal activity which floods our bodies in a stressy situation (for example, on seeing a lion — the stressor — we are programmed to run away); modern external stressors are not lions, but infuriating bosses, malfunctioning children, awful partners, horrid in laws, crap jobs.

Add to this the less tangible internal stressors — cultural expectations from what the Nagoskis term the Bikini Industrial Complex, coupled with self criticism, negative past experiences, and fear of the future — and you have a human giver stewing in stress juice, trapped in the stress cycle day in, day out.

The body cannot differentiate between the stress caused by a lion, or the stress caused by overwork, worry, or unhappiness, so in order to close the stress response cycle, we need to signal to the body that everything is ok. Scented candles cannot do this.

Immediate closure of the stress cycle involves the same action as when faced with a lion: running.

When faced with 21st century lions — road rage, traffic jams, burst pipes — running, swimming, dancing, sweating, for 20-60 minutes a day, reassures the stressed body that all is well.

Other stress calmers include deep breathing, laughter, physical affection (a six second kiss, a twenty second hug, with someone you love), positive social interaction (even minor stuff), creative expression, or having a good cry.

All effective in resetting the body.

Longer term — so that you don’t burn out in the first place — Emily and Amelia advocate connecting to what they call your Something Larger.

Find meaning. “Eudaimonia versus hedonia,” says Emily.

Basically, finding meaning and connection with something outside of yourself, which is not the same as seeking pleasure to distract yourself from stressful reality; unlike the quick fix of hedonia, eudaimonia requires effort.

“Meaning is not found,” they write.

“It is made…..to make meaning, the research tells us, engage with something larger than yourself. Its mere existence is not enough….you have to engage with it actively.” (Like kale — it’s only good for you if you actually eat it).

Meaning generally comes from three sources — the pursuit and achievement of ambitious goals (ending climate change, finding a cure for cancer etc), service to the divine or other spiritual callings (doesn’t always work for everyone), or having loving, emotionally intimate connections with others (attainable to all humans, irrespective of status or circumstance). Or you can combine all three, as suits your life.

“There is no right or wrong source of meaning,” write the authors.

There’s just whatever gives you the feeling that your life has a positive impact.

It’s all about belonging, contributing, connecting.

It’s also about resting, which makes us more productive and resilient — pushing through when we are exhausted is not just a daft waste of time, it’s also bad for our health.

“The idea that you can use ‘grit’ or ‘self control’ to stay focused and productive every minute of every day is not merely incorrect, it’s gaslighting,” say the Nagoskis, adding, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm.”

Burnout – The Secret of Solving The Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, published by Vermillion €20.

How to identify Human Giver Syndrome

    ■ Believing you have a moral obligation – that you owe it to the world – to be happy, calm, pretty, generous, and attentive to the needs of others.

    ■ Believing that failure to be any of these things makes you a failure as a person

    ■ Believing that such failure means you should beat yourself up

    ■ Believing that these are not symptoms, but normal and true ideas

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