Modern life is complex and stressful and we all suffer exhaustion, even burnout, at least at times. What steps can we take to prevent burnout? Emily and Amelia Nagoski, identical twin sisters with doctorates in human sexual behaviour (Emily) and music (Amelia) have written an excellent book about burnout, Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle, after Amelia was repeatedly hospitalised with chronic pain, repeated infections, asthma — all symptoms of burnout.
We tend to focus a lot more on the external stressors – a high pressure job, balancing work and childcare, difficult relationships, money worries – and try to work out solutions to these outside problems. But they are keen to stress that there are some less tangible internal stressors that we need to look out for too, as they can also lead us down the path to burnout.
“The Bikini Industrial Complex”
We need to be aware of wider cultural expectations from what the Nagoskis term “the Bikini Industrial Complex”. This is their name for the multi billion dollar collection of businesses (beauty, fashion etc) that profit by setting an unachievable “aspirational ideal,” of feminine beauty coupled with our own (women’s) self criticism, negative past experiences, and fear of the future. This ideal leads to a human giver (see my previous blog) stewing in stress juice, permanently trapped in the stress cycle.
Look again at your goals
When we set goals for ourselves and our lives, we need to regularly problem-solve and use positive reappraisal as we move towards those goals. In this way we stay motivated and moving forward. Women are usually particularly good at planful problem-solving. But the one thing we tend to forget in our plans is ourselves.
Suppose you do all the planning, and it works except it’s much more difficult or much slower than you expected. This could be “get the report finished by 5pm today”, or get fit enough to run a 5km in three weeks, or buy a house within the next two years. When you’re frustrated by the slow or interrupted progress toward your goal, and planful problem-solving and positive reappraisal don’t help with the frustration, you need to redefine winning.
What we tend to do is to wonder if there’s something wrong with us and continually beat ourselves up and compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing much better. And immediately we have triggered a huge stress response! So, we have to remember to include dealing with the stress itself by completing the stress response cycle in our plan.
Practice gratitude – but in the right way!
The Nagoski sisters write in a very humorous way about how research shows again and again that this is where gratitude can be an effective tool – that too often we can try to practice gratitude because we KNOW it is proven to be helpful but we can end up feeling even worse as in:
“I am grateful to have food in my cupboard and a roof over my head, and now I feel like an asshole for having to stop and take time to remember how lucky I am not to be homeless and starving. How shallow of me, that I spend time hating my body and trying to change it, when I should be grateful for my health.”
Research shows that writing endless lists of “things I’m grateful for” often backfires on us. However, there are two strategies the science says ARE effective:
- The “gratitude letter
Quite simply, you write a letter to someone you’re grateful to have in your life. You don’t have to let the other person read it (it could be someone who helped you pick up your dropped bag of shopping in the street with a kind word and a smile) but again research shows that if you do, this gives a super-boost of well-being. The reason this is so effective is that it’s not about self-care but about reaching out and connecting to other people.
At the end of each day, think of some event or circumstance for which you feel grateful, and write about it. It could be something like “Sat through a difficult meeting with my boss without bawling, shouting or walking out”. Write down what happened, including details about what anyone involved, including you, did or said. Describe how it made you feel at the time, and how you feel now, as you think about it. Focus on what it is about it that you feel gratitude for rather than getting drawn into negative, critical thoughts and feelings – although if they come up, just gently set them to one side and return your attention to the thing you’re being grateful for.
I can recommend this excellent podcast where Brene Brown interviews the Nagoski sisters about their book:
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!