‘WHEN we told women we were writing a book called Burnout, nobody ever asked, “What’s burnout?”,’ share American identical twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski in a chapter of their new book. ‘[But] we all have an intuitive sense of what it is and know how our emotions crumble in the grip of it.’
Common components of burnout -including emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation or the depletion of empathy, and a feeling that nothing you do will make any difference — will be familiar to many.
According to the Health And Safety Executive, 526,000 workers in the UK suffered from work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2016/17, and 12.5 million working days were lost as a result. Workers in healthcare, social care and education are more likely to suffer than those in other industries, and women are more likely to be affected.
Amelia, now 41, was hospitalised twice with stress-induced appendicitis. She has suffered knee pain, back pain, shoulder pain, asthma and severe depression, and after being a teacher for five years she burnt out, thinking she was ‘going to die in my forties’. This experience led to her writing Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle with her sister Emily, a sex educator.
Amelia says back then she had no understanding of how to ‘complete the stress cycle’, a technique the sisters explain to help the body feel safe after a period of mental or physical stress.
‘Life feels like it has got so much harder in the past five years,’ says Emily. ‘Women are expected to give their attention, bodies, health, dreams in the service of someone else’s wellbeing. The patriarchy expects women to be giving themselves in every sense and this takes a physical toll.’
Some of the symptoms of being a human giver? According to the book, it’s ‘believing you have a moral obligation… to be pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others… Believing that any failure to be any of these qualities makes you a failure as a person.’
The solution is reassuringly graspable. Physical activity is ‘the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress cycle — even if it’s just jumping up and down’. Other tactics include affection (hugging someone you love for 20 seconds or kissing for six seconds — studies show this releases oxytocin, the hormone that makes you feel safe and connected), laughter and petting an animal. Oh, and resting.
‘If people do one thing, let it be sleeping for an extra half hour a day,’ Emily says. Smash the cycle one snooze at a time.
Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski (Vermilion) is out today
You know you’re burnt out when…
■ You notice yourself doing the same apparently pointless thing over and over again, or engaging in self-destructive behaviours. You might notice yourself routinely checking things, thinking obsessive thoughts or fiddling with your body.
■ You’re ‘chandeliering’. This is American research professor Brené Brown’s term for the sudden, overwhelming burst of pain so intense you can no longer contain it and you jump as high as a chandelier. It’s out of proportion to what’s happening in the here and now but it’s not out of proportion to the suffering you’re holding inside. It has to go somewhere — so it erupts.
■ You turn into a bunny hiding in a hedge. Imagine a rabbit being chased by a fox that runs under a bush to hide. When your brain is stuck in the middle of the cycle, it may lose the ability to recognise that the fox has gone, so you just stay under that bush — that is, you come home from work and watch cat videos while eating ice cream directly from the container, or stay in bed all weekend, hiding from your life.
■ Your body feels out of whack. Maybe you’re sick all the time: you have chronic pain, infections that keep returning or injuries that won’t heal. Stress can cause biological problems that can’t always be explained. Chronic illness can be exacerbated by the stress response.