Episode Three: The Stress Threshold
This episode looks at what happens to our minds and bodies when we experience burnout. It examines why solutions like “focus on self care” don’t go far enough, and how thinking about burnout as a social justice issue is a more helpful framework for understanding its impact and finding solutions.
Am I experiencing burnout?
The World Health Organization officially listed burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. A recent Gallup study showed that about a quarter of full-time employees said they feel burned out often, while an additional 44% said they sometimes experience burnout. So how do you know if it’s happening to you? Symptoms can include physical effects (headaches, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues), emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment.
Expert and author Amelia Nagoski goes by this definition: “Burnout is the experience of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, and yet still somehow worried that you’re not doing enough.” For those socialized as women or those in caregiving professions or activism, it can be especially difficult to notice that you are burning out.
How much do you know about the physical or psychological signals your body sends when it’s in distress? Take stock of your body: have you noticed any patterns in your eating or sleeping habits? Take stock of your psychological and emotional health: how are you feeling about the work that you’re doing? Do you feel numb or detached? Do you keep raising the bar on what it takes to feel accomplished?
How can I stress less?
Stress will never go away, but if we better understand how our bodies respond to stress we can learn how to “complete the stress cycle” and return our bodies to homeostasis. As Nagoski explains, the stress response cycle is a biological process with a beginning, middle and end. But in modern human life, there’s a disconnect between what causes stress — money, kids, work, and traffic — and what we do in response. These are not things we can “run away from” in the way that we could run away from a lion.
So, we need to be able to separate the stress from the stressors and complete the stress response cycle separately from dealing with the stressors. Nagoski recommends some techniques to completing the stress cycle: movement, a 20-second hug or 7-second kiss, or getting a full night of sleep. How is “completing the stress cycle” different from “practicing self care”? What are the three biggest daily stressors in your life? If you think about responding to stress separately from responding to stressors, how does it change your thoughts and behaviors? What brings your body back to homeostasis?
How much rest do I actually need?
The term burnout became popularized after a 1978 report on air traffic controllers in which researchers were trying to understand why extremely resilient employees were developing burnout. Researcher Rajvinder Samra clarifies that for many people with high professional and personal ideals, their answer to exhaustion is often just to work more. The problem with that, she says, is that “burnout is more likely to be a failure of recovery than resilience.” That’s where the 42% rule comes into play. Nagoski argues that to keep our bodies in working order, we need to spend 42% of our lives resting.
What beliefs do you hold about the value of rest? How are those influenced by capitalism, patriarchy or racism? Out of 24 hours in your day, how much time do you spend resting? What internal and external shifts would you need to make to prioritize rest more?
Amelia Nagoski is a conductor and the co-author of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”. She’s also the co-creator of the Feminist Survival Project, “a podcast for feminists who feel overwhelmed and exhausted, yet still wonder if they’re doing ‘enough.’”
Want to dig in further?
- Amelia & Emily Nagoski Walk You Through Their Burnout Research >>
- How The 42% Rule Could Help You Recover From Burnout >>
- “The Burnout Effect”: Essays From Zora Magazine >>
- Why The Answer To Burnout Isn’t Self Care, But Unionizing >>
- Burnout Is A Capitalism Problem >>