Anita Rao 00:06
As a Type A-perfectionist — who for the most part really enjoys my work — I operate dangerously close to the edge of burnout at all times. And even when I'm not working, I always try to fit too many things into small windows of time. My partner jokingly calls it my "state of tornado." And for the most part, approaching life as a storm system works just fine for me. But I've learned my fair share of hard lessons along the way, like senior year of college when I skipped a spring break beach trip to work on my thesis. If it's not clear already, I am definitely a nerd. But it was while my friends were toes in the sand, passing drinks back and forth, that I had my first experience of true burnout. I started getting terrible headaches. I struggled to sleep. I felt confused and out-of-body, and my neck was killing me. I called my parents to fill them in, and my dad, the doctor, nervously posited that I might be showing symptoms of meningitis. Thankfully, it wasn't meningitis. What it was was a wake up call that I really needed to chill out. But people like me, like a lot of us, can't just turn our brains off while we take a soak away in a warm tub of self care. So what's an overactive mind to do to avoid the burden of burnout? This is Embodied, I'm Anita Rao. Burnout is more or less an umbrella term for a special kind of stress that manifests in mental and physical symptoms, and it can lead to or exacerbate serious health conditions.
A.R. Abdelbarr 02:04
I started to know I was burned out at my last job when I started to have physical symptoms: anxiety, night sweats, not being able to take care of myself, eating properly or exercising the way I normally do. When it became to that level, I really knew that this wasn't the right job and fit for me. And when it goes from excitement about your job, to just trying to get through the day. to really struggling to maintain your own health. You know, I think that downward spiral kind of gives you all the information you need that that's gone too far for you.
Anita Rao 02:42
The sad news is a lot of us aren't able to stop burnout before it happens. That's because we're too caught up to recognize what's going on inside of us. Or we assume the cause of our problems is something else altogether without reflecting on how we've been overextending our minds and bodies.
I think until it happens to you, you don't realize what it is, exactly.
Anita Rao 03:06
Yeah. Remember, my dad thought it was meningitis? I wonder if I'd been at home with him instead of away at college when I first experienced burnout, would he have seen the signs?
I thought I was depressed. I thought, like I had some sort of underlying health issue, and then, really, it took one of my friends being like: You know, you've kind of been working for seven straight months. Like, I think you're just tired. I think you just are feeling hopeless because you've not stopped. And so I remember Googling "symptoms of burnout," and it's like: cynicism at work; feeling like it's a dead end; you're exhausted; you sleep a lot, da da da ... And I was like: Oh my god, this is it. This is what's happening, like to a T what's happening, and it was actually in the same week the World Health Organization categorized burnout — I believe it was like — a medical condition.
Anita Rao 04:07
Yep. In 2019, the World Health Organization formally labeled burnout a medical condition. That same year a long form piece in BuzzFeed dubbed millennials, my generation, "The Burnout Generation." If so many of us are at the point of burnout, are we also at the point where burnout feels normal?
Amelia Nagoski 04:31
In our book, we colloquially define burnout as: the experience of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, and yet still somehow worried that you're not doing enough.
Anita Rao 04:41
That's Amelia Nagoski. She's a professor of music, a conductor, and yes, the twin sister of Emily Nagoski, the sex expert you've heard on other episodes of this show. They even kind of sound alike. The book Amelia is talking about is one the siblings wrote together. It's called "Burnout: The Secret To Solving The Stress Cycle." She and I got a chance to talk about the ways our bodies and brains respond when they're bombarded with the stress of task after task.
Amelia Nagoski 05:09
The first thing to do if you're worrying about burnout in your life is to separate the stress from the stressor. A stressor is anything you can see, touch, hear, smell, taste, or imagine, that causes a stress response in your body. So your workplace might be a stressor; traffic is a stressor. But the stress is a cycle that happens in your body. And it's meant to be completed the way it was completed in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness when we would run away from a lion and save our lives through that physical exertion, and sort of run through all the neurochemicals and hormones that are associated with that stress response. But unfortunately, today the stressors like traffic and work, they can't be solved by running away or punching anybody in the face. So we need to separate the stress from the stressors, and complete the stress response cycle separately and independently from dealing with the stressors.
Anita Rao 06:01
So it's this physiological thing. Stress is actually adaptive, we needed to be able to run away from the lion. But now we have these non-lion stressors in our life, and we need to find a way to complete this stress cycle in a different way. Tell me about this kind of completion of the stress cycle.
Amelia Nagoski 06:19
Sure. All emotions happen in cycles, stress is one of them. The stress itself is not bad for you, as long as you go all the way through the end of the cycle. So say you're being chased by the lion, and you run and you run, and you get invited into someone's home —come in, hide here —and you all hide together, and the lion tries to bash the door down, and you hold it back together. And eventually the lion gives up and go away. And you have fought, and you are exhausted, but you're also elated. The sun shines brighter. You love your friends and family. You're grateful to be alive, and that is the complete stress response cycle. Now say the stressor is traffic. So you've driven home, and there's been terrible traffic — stop and go the whole way —and you pull into the driveway. And does anybody when they get to that point love their friends and family, and the sky shines brighter? No, because you have not completed the stress response cycle. You have managed the stressor. You're out of traffic. You got home, but you need to do something that tells your body that it is safe. So you complete the stress response cycle from a lion by running and fighting. How do you do it from traffic? You run. You fight. You engage in physical activity. You connect with someone who loves you, who makes you feel safe, or lots and lots of other things, but it's not gonna be getting home that solves the stress response cycle, that's just the stressor, you deal with that separately.
Anita Rao 07:38
So what you're saying is there is the stress, it's physiological, and in order to not walk around with decades and decades of these uncompleted stress cycles, we need to find ways in our everyday life to complete these. So physical activity, you mention a 20-second hug or a six-second kiss. So these kind of physical things that we can do to tell our body: Hey, you're safe. It's okay. This cycle is over.
Amelia Nagoski 08:02
Exactly. Creative self expression; connection —not just with other members of your family — but with the divine or with animals. There are lots of ways, but the important fact is that the stress itself is not the problem. It's getting stuck in the middle of the cycle that's the problem.
A.R. Abdelbarr 08:35
Every single day, you need to take a meta-view of who you are, what your goals are, and whether your day-to-day life are in line with the profession that you envisioned and the lifestyle that you envision for yourself.
Krista Melo 08:53
I know what worked for me was doing a positivity journal, and, you know, as campy as that sounds, it actually worked because it forced me to reflect on the day and think about the things that were going on. And when I started noticing a trend that it was really hard to find things to be positive about at the end of the day, that's when I started realizing that I needed to make a change.
Anita Rao 09:24
Stress happens. But burnout isn't the kind of tension you can just relieve with a deep breath, or a quick walk to calm your nerves. It's deeper and more insidious than regular stress. And like I said, we often don't even realize what's going on when the burnout burden hits us. The people around us might notice first, and if we're lucky, they'll say something. Again, here's Amelia Nagasaki.
Amelia Nagoski 09:47
I think the reason a lot of us don't notice that we're burning out is because we're doing what we're supposed to do. We have learned from society that we are givers. We're supposed to give everything we have: our lives, our time, our bodies. Especially those of us who work in caregiving professions, like health care, or teaching — notice these are women-dominated fields — and we feel like what we're supposed to do is give until we have nothing left. There's the story of, you know, you have a cup of water, and do you give that cup of water to someone who needs it, or do you drink it yourself? Well, of course, what you do is you share it with someone else who needs it until the cup is empty. And then you're standing there with this empty cup. And if you're a giver, who believes that this is your moral obligation in the world, someone's going to come up to you and say: Why are you standing there with that empty cup? Someone else could use that cup, and you feel like you have to give that away, too. So you don't notice that anything wrong is happening to your body, because you're following the rules. You're doing as you are told. And it takes another giver —someone who comes over to your side — and says: Hey, you need support and protection. I'm taking this giver language from a book called "Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny" by Kate Manne. She posits this world where there are human givers who are morally obliged to give until they have nothing left. And that moral obligation would be fine, if we were surrounded by other givers.
Anita Rao 11:09
One of the things I took away from your book was realizing how much we're all kind of striving for wellness as this static state of being: I want to be well. I want to get to the point where I can balance everything. I have that work-life balance. But you point out so clearly that wellness is not a state of being. It's a state of action. We need to be able to fluidly move in and out of this state of wellness. Can you can you explain that a little bit more?
Amelia Nagoski 11:33
Sure. When we say wellness is a state of action. It's the state of oscillation through all of the cycles of being human. So we feel like: Oh, I need to be totally independent and be able to stand on my own two feet. Well, yes, sometimes. But we're actually meant to oscillate from autonomy to connection. I'm supposed to work really hard. Well, yes, you are. Welcome to, you know, doing what you have to do in the world. Fantastic. Thank you for that. But we're supposed to oscillate from effort to rest. From feeling stressed to feeling perfectly safe, which is why I say that stress is not the problem. Getting stuck in one place is the problem, and we get stuck because the world is telling us there's only one way to be. So the problem is not that we aren't trying, or even that we don't know how to deal with our stress necessarily. The problem is really that the world has turned wellness into yet another goal everyone should be striving for.
Anita Rao 12:25
How do we know when it's time to give up, or time to really switch gears —move away from a particular path that we've chosen?
Amelia Nagoski 12:33
We actually have a worksheet in our book about like: When it's time to quit, You just make some pros and cons. The hard part about quitting is that after you quit, that creates a whole new pile of stressors that you need to address, including dealing with the stress itself that results from having made the decision to quit.
Anita Rao 12:50
What about for people who feel like they don't have a choice. They can't afford to miss a paycheck. They have loans they need to pay off. They can't just quit their job.
Amelia Nagoski 12:57
Absolutely. This is one of the reasons that burnout is a social justice issue, because in addition to professional barriers to wellness, there are social and economic ones: misogyny, but also race and class, and for the people who are just stuck working two jobs and raising kids by themselves. This is a larger systemic issue that has to be addressed, which is why the cure for burnout is not self care — can never be self care. The cure for burnout has to be all of us caring for each other.
Anita Rao 13:36
One of the voices we heard earlier in the episode belongs to AR Abdelbarr. He described experiencing extreme anxiety, night sweats and other symptoms he suffered from being burned out at work. AR is a doctor, like my dad, who — well the apple doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to taking on a lot at work. In 2014, that came to a head when my dad had a heart attack. It was more than enough to scare us all into having a difficult, and necessary conversation. And my mom and dad will tell you that that conversation changed our family forever.
Satish Rao (Anita's dad) 14:12
I think it was an important turning point for me personally, in terms of work, home and relaxation balance. No question. I think in 2014, first of all, I thought I was fairly fit. I was still fairly active, but I hadn't realized that I was also taking on a significant amount of work-related stress, as well as a significant amount of emotional, psychological stress, again, work related. So these two factors, I think, played a big role, and I was not relaxing enough or having recreation time to balance these work-related activities. Since then I think I've tried my very best to balance these two aspects. I don't think I have done it to the fullest extent I should, but at least 70%-80%, I believe I have achieved that balance, and I try not to bring too much work at home. I used to really come home after dinner, I would again get onto my papers and work until midnight, and then get up early and so on. I don't do that preferentially now. I try to finish work at work as much as I can, and if I do some work, it's only a short emergency work that I have to do at home.
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 15:42
Yeah, I'll agree with you on that. I think you have done a much better job of being home and not working. I mean, if we can go back to the dark times ...
Anita Rao 15:51
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 15:51
When you were just ... I can remember you working on grants in your pajamas on Christmas day, and I still have never forgiven you for that.
Anita Rao 15:59
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 16:02
Yes, 2014 was definitely a low point, I think, you know, that was a pretty big reminder of like, you know that you have to take time to relax. So yeah, I'll give him some points for that.
Anita Rao 16:14
Have you experienced burnout mom?
Sheila Rao (Anita's mom) 16:17
No, I think I've experienced being overwhelmed with things thatI have to do, but not really burnout. But I definitely felt overwhelmed, you know, at times when you were all growing up, because I did a lot of things on my own. Not really dad would not help me — which was just because he was gone — but like in terms of just living daily life. Lke now when you all are cooking, you'll say: We are doing this I never had the we, it was me. I'm doing this, and I'm doing that. So yeah, I think if I wasn't managing my time very well, I would feel overwhelmed and get stressed out. But burnout per se I don't think I've experienced.
Anita Rao 17:09
Thank goodness for my mom who is better at managing stress than the rest of our family. I hope it won't take a medical event for me or you to consider how to get better at that.
Be real with yourself and your expectations of yourself. And know that if you've gotten to this point, it's probably because you had those expectations set a little too high. And that's totally okay. But be honest with yourself and others.
Jack Wiggen 17:39
I think the biggest takeaway is that it's never too late to do something else. People are scared, but oftentimes you don't need to be scared, you just need to actually do what's right for you. Even if it feels really uncomfortable.
Anita Rao 18:05
There's a widely quoted Gallup study that reveals nearly 25% of full time workers are or have been affected by burnout. I personally don't know anyone who has a job that's burnout proof. And for a lot of us, our jobs are huge parts of our identities. And that's especially true for activists. They often face physical and emotional tolls from the work that they are called to do every day.
Emilio Vicente 18:29
I would say around five years ago, that's when I started to notice that my health was dramatically declined.
Anita Rao 18:37
Meet Emilio Vicente. He works for Familia TQLM. That stands for Trans Queer Liberation Movement. It's an advocacy organization that centers Latinx communities,
Emilio Vicente 18:49
I use the metric of high school for me as like my peak health achievement goals. Like I was really active, running around, very mentally and physically well. And it wasn't until like five years ago that I started getting symptoms of not feeling well. I saw a dramatic increase of weight gain, which for me was abnormal, not what I was used to. And that was also around the time that — as an undocumented person presidential elections in 2016, was starting — and we saw a lot of attack on immigrants. I would say that's when I started realizing something wasn't right.
Anita Rao 19:30
It's interesting, because we spoke a little bit earlier about this big piece that was published in BuzzFeed earlier this year about millennial burnout. And there have been a lot of responses to it, and one of the criticisms that I read was from a young, black activists who said: Some people are allowed to be tired, and other people just aren't. And I wonder what what you think about that, and if that resonates with your experience?
Emilio Vicente 19:51
That 100% resonates with my experience. As someone directly affected by an issue, specifically immigration and LGBTQ issues. There isn't a day where I don't think about these issues. And it's ... There isn't a switch where I can just turn off these issues and not think about them. Because the reality is, especially for marginalized communities, communities of color communities that are continually attacked by policies at the local, state and federal level, you can't just disassociate who you are, and from one day to the next, go on and try to do something else. Which is, when all of this started happening, one of the first therapists that I saw told me: Why don't you just take a break and try something else? Which for me, was a very bizarre thing to think about, because the reality is, even just the simple fact of going to a therapist and talking about this is a reality [that] for many of people like me, that they don't have access to. And so I couldn't, I can't just pause and do something else, because we are affected by all of these issues on a daily basis. Even if we don't want to think about him?
Anita Rao 21:01
So we've been talking throughout the show about one of the things in Amelia Nagoski's book. You kind of have the stress, and you can maybe find ways to treat that: physical exercise, you know, emotional connection, that kind of thing. And then you have the stressors, some of which are systemic, and others of which are not. And I wonder for you, I mean, working in activism day after day, in a particular climate. How do you define what success looks like? Have you been able to change your relationship with success to kind of help you experience less burnout?
Emilio Vicente 21:32
Yeah, and I would say that I started doing that more consciously as I became more involved. So I look at everything through immigration advocacy and LGBTQ advocacy. What I've realized about success is that you have to think about the long term. That you might not be able to have an impact within the next few weeks or days or months, that it might take a few years. And that's also been helpful in not having these rigid structures of what success is and redefining again what success is. Because even as we talk about immigration now, coming out and saying you're undocumented has really changed the conversation, and that didn't happen over a few days or months. That's happened over many years of people speaking out. And I would say, that's one way of like reframing what success looks like.
Anita Rao 22:27
Emilio Vicente is the advocacy and communications director at Familia TQLM. While it's true, we may not recognize when we're burning our own candles at both ends. Remember what Amelia Nagoski said: We can all do our part to look out for each other. Thanks to Amanda Magnus and Charlie Shelton-Ormond for producing this episode. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Lindsey Foster-Thomas is our executive producer and content director. Our theme music is by Quilla. Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. Thanks also to you for your support of WUNC. And to Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop. I'm Anita Rao on an exploration of our brains, our bodies and taking on the taboo with you.