Recently I have been looking at burnout, what causes it and especially how we can successfully manage ourselves away from it. One of the most helpful things I have listened to recently is Brené Brown‘s Unlocking Us Podcast with Emily and Amelia Nagoski, discussing the identical twin sister’s book “Burnout.” In just over an hour this podcast imparts so much information that has really useful application. I have listened to it 3 times now, the last time taking many notes! Therefore I decided to offer my notes on this Podcast episode by way of processing this information myself and hopefully offering some helpful insights. You can then dig in to the podcast or the book if you want to go further - as I am!
By way of a preface for my notes, for me they do come together as a whole, but many of the short paragraphs are also self contained mini moments of understanding each with a little take away. Here goes...
Herbert Freudenberger: Definition of Burnout (1973)
Emotional Exhaustion - the fatigue that comes from carrying too much for too long (this is especially prevalent for women and this also has the highest impact on our health!)
Depersonalisation - the depletion of empathy caring and compassion.
Decreased sense of accomplishment - the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.
Most of the discussion pertains to the first of these 3 factors - emotional exhaustion. In situations like the current Covid pandemic, in general, these things have a bigger impact on women in households. Women tend to pick up the lion share of the extra work when people have to work from home, when people loose their job, when education has to happen from home etc. And all on top of their own job. (Note to self - must be aware and help more!) Women are more likely to be affected by “compassion fatigue” and “vicarious traumatisation”. I am aware that certainly this affects my wife much more than me and so it’s really helpful to know and understand this, and bear this in mind in our relationship!
Emotions are neurological events: involuntary neurological responses that have a beginning, middle and end. Just about every system in your body responds to the chemical and electrical cascade activated by emotion. Emotion is automatic instantaneous, happens everywhere in your body and effects everything! Good examples for me are a big fright of some sort or when I’m about to do something totally out of my comfort zone. Literally the nerves take over and everything is affected.
“We are not cognitive rational beings that on occasion feel,
the truth is we are emotional beings who on occasion think!”
Emotions are like tunnels, if you go all the way through them you get to bask in the full light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck. We can get lost and sometimes need someone to help us get through. Emotional exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion!
Dealing with the feeling needs to be addressed separately to dealing with the situation that generates the feeling! (See later notes about Stress and Stressors). Often it’s the feeling we get stuck in, even when the situation that generated the feeling had passed.
Human Giver Syndrome - adapted from moral philosopher Kate Mann. Lays out a moral system that has two kinds of people. Human Beings (whose job it is to live to express, to be their humanity and whose moral obligation is to acquire whatever resources it takes to accomplish their moral obligation) and Human Givers (whose moral obligation it is to give - their humanity, their time, their lives, their bodies, their feelings to the human beings). There is a large sector of the population who believe women should be at all times pretty, happy, calm, generous and attentive to the needs of others, and if you don’t, there is a moral obligation to be punished and those with the syndrome will punish themselves if no one else does!
(Note: This links in with Brene’s research on the cultural norms for women to be nice, quiet and spending all resources on appearance. This is explained in her book “Daring Greatly”)
Human Giver Syndrome is also a cross sectional syndrome, where there’s an expectation for people of colour to be givers to white people, people of less privilege to be givers to those with more privilege, blue collar workers to give to white collar managers etc. (This is explored more in Kate Mann’s new book is called “Entitled”)
Stress: The cardio vascular system is designed to provide a steady flow of blood to our organs. When stressed adrenaline is released and our blood pressure goes up delivering more oxygenated blood to the organs that need it faster! This system is designed for things like the fight or flight protective response when we confront danger, and it’s meant to have us on high state of alert for about 10 mins while we deal with the danger. However, the same system is activated in stress and we can end up with this situation for hours, days, weeks, months and even years in chronic stress. This neurochemical response causes wear and tear on the cardio vascular system, causing hypertension, aneurysms, haemorrhages etc. This also affects the endocrine system and the digestive system etc. This is why our immunity becomes compromised and we get gut issues like ulcers and IBS.
Stress vs Stressors: Stressors are the external factors that induce stress.
Removing the stressors does not mean the stress goes away! This can happen in good situations as well as bad. This happens in many “good” situations. For example, it is a common phenomenon for campaigners who work like crazy for extended periods of time all for a good cause. When they achieve the outcome they have worked so hard for there’s an expectation they’ll have a huge sense of euphoria when it’s achieved, but often people crash and get ill. The stress inducing activity has come to an end but the body is still in a state of physiological stress (still stuck in the tunnel). Our bodies needs us to do something that signals that we are “safe” otherwise we stay in that state with neurochemicals and hormones degrading but never shifting into relaxation. Most of our body’s systems are affected including digestive, immune, cardio vascular, musculoskeletal and reproductive.
“People do not get that we cannot separate the body from affect emotions - feelings!”
(Affect - from outside to the body. Effect - from the body to outside)
The immune system communicates with you through your nervous system via symptoms - headaches, gut ache, ulcers etc. (Important to listen to our bodies!)
The stress itself will kill you faster than the stressor will, unless you do something to complete the stress response cycle.
Factors why we get stuck...
Chronic stressors - long term stressful projects, tasks, relationships.
Social appropriateness - being nice and not responding to inappropriate comments, behaviours and actions that wind you up but would not be appropriate to address in the moment.
Safety - especially for women - the workman’s wolf whistle or comment for example.
Fight, Flight & Freeze.
Flight is the “avoid” response. Fight is the “approach” response - either move away or move toward. Freeze is when the body immediately assesses that I’m both too slow to out run the danger and too weak to win the fight, so I play dead! Our body literally shuts down - in a milder form this is what I understand as when we “choke”, we can’t think of anything to say or do in the moment and choke. When the danger has gone away the body and mind gradually comes back to life, we may shiver, breathe more deeply, slowly stretch etc. This is a genuine physiological response. All these responses are also immediate and automatic by the body, and there should be no sense of weakness associated with any of them. Our body knows best!
Turn toward your feelings about your response with kindness and compassion (Don’t beat yourself up) to ensure you complete the stress cycle - to get to the end of the tunnel!
Seven ways to ensure you complete the stress cycle...
Physical activity - any form. Walking, running, dancing, shake it out etc.
Breathing - correct form down regulates your body - long and slow! >90 secs.
Positive social interaction - connection tells your body you are somewhere safe, the feeling of being home!
Laughter - genuine embarrassing guffawing. Laughter is an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions. (Sophie Scott - Neuro Scientist)
Affection - a warm hug of 20 seconds or more. Hugging until relaxed - feel the shift in your body - the sense of coming home again! A 20 second hug can change your hormones, lower your heart rate and blood pressure and improve mood, shown by a post hug release of oxytocin.
Cry - when you allow it and let it complete, you complete the stress cycle. Usually just takes a few minutes when you give in to it and let it complete without overthinking!
Creative expression - “Take your broken heart and put it into art” Carrie Fischer. It’s about externalising your feelings and can be in your imagination only if you take time to use your imagination.
My new mantra on this...
Move, Breathe, Relate,
Laugh, Hug, Cry, Create!
How do you know you’ve completed the stress cycle? Your body tells you - but you have to listen to your body to know and feel when it’s done. Just as our body lets us know when we’re in chronic stress, it can let us know we’re through it. Of course we can be dealing with multiple stressors at the same time, each with their own stress. If we tune in to our body and thoughts we’ll know which is which and recognise incremental progress and when a particular stress is done!
Final thoughts from me: Is stress good or bad? Should we expect to ever be stress free?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. We are emotional beings! We are supposed to and it is good experience all emotions and feelings, stress included. Therefore I believe some stress should be embraced and not avoided. Stress adds excitement and anticipation to various events and gets us on edge in a good way. What’s bad, is getting stuck in stress, chronic stress. However, thanks to great books like this, we have knowledge and tools to better understand and manage stress in our lives.
This sums it up very well...
“To be well is to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure or excitement back to safety and calm and out again. Stress is not bad for you, being stuck is bad for you!” (From the book).
Footnote: If you need someone to help you get through some stress tunnels please contact me for a chat. My coaching practice specialises in helping people dealing with burnout and stress, change, and finding purpose. Thanks! Peter.