Emily Nagoski is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller, Come As You Are: the surprising new science that will transform your sex life and The Come As You Are Workbook, and co-author, with her sister Amelia, of Burnout: the secret to unlocking the stress cycle.
Burnout explains why women experience burnout differently to men - and shows how to minimise stress, manage emotions, and live a more joyful life.
What is burnout?
The term burnout first appeared in 1975 as having three characteristics; emotional exhaustion, a sense of decreased accomplishment and depersonalisation or diminishment of empathy and compassion.
For women in particular, the emotional exhaustion is key, says Dr Nagoski.
“Your brain is the cause of it and then there are physical consequences when that happens because all emotions are physiological events that happen in your body. Stress suppresses your immune system, it suppresses your digestion, it suppresses your reproduction function, changes your cardiovascular functioning so if you stay in that state for a long time it doesn’t just wear you out emotionally, your body will degrade gradually.”
It’s a cycle, she says.
“It’s intended to help us survive stresses like being chased by a lion. On the savannah of Africa, a lion comes after you, your body notices that and it floods with adrenaline and cortisol and glucocorticoids, all in preparation to help you run away from the lion and at this point there’s only two possible outcomes; either you get eaten by the lion, or chased by the hippo because it turns out hippos are actually the most dangerous land mammal on earth, apart from humans, and if you get eaten by the lion then none of the rest of this matters.
"Or suppose you run back to your village… and one of your fellow villagers opens your door and is like ‘come on, run in here, run in here', and they slam the door when your’e inside and you both stand with your shoulder against it while the lion tries to get you. Eventually the lion gives up and how you feel at the end, when the lion finally goes away is celebratory, you love your friends and family, you’re grateful to be alive and that’s the complete cycle.”
But, we’re not really chased by lions anymore, our stresses tend to be things like traffic or the patriarchy, she says.
Because there’s nothing for our body to recognise its’ completed our stress cycle, we need to tell it by doing physical activity, like jumping up and down in our driveway, dancing in our living room or going for a run.
Sometimes it’s important to numb the stress, she says.
“Under some circumstances it’s really important to have those times where you just check out, you close the door, you eat ice cream directly out of a container using a potato chip as your spoon and you watch terrible television.”
But if you don’t complete the cycle, you can end up unwell. Some women end up in hospital with chronic stress or chronic pain.
“It can be really threatening and maybe a little uncomfortable that you actually have to go and feel your feelings.”
The way you deal with the stressors are seperate to the way you deal with your stress, she says. Don’t deal with the stress in a way that causes stress in itself.
Things that help can be connection, physical activity, creative self-expression or breathing.
“As you heal from all that stuff you grow mightier, you grow stronger.”
If you only have time to deal with one or the other, deal with the stress, she says.
Know the enemy - the patriarchy
“We’re talking about the ways when a person is born, the adults all look at this persons body and declare ‘it’s a boy’ or it’s a girl’. If gender were truely neutral then the person’s genitals would matter as much for how we’re going to raise that human as their elbows and toes mean.”
When you’re declared a boy, things are easier for you, she says.
Even in the countries where it’s the most even like New Zealand and the US, at the end of the week men are still doing only 10 hours a week for house-care and childcare, women are doing 26 hours.
“Why? It’s just simply assumed that women are going to be the ones who devote their time and energy giving to the family.”
Women are even expected to sacrifice their sleep, she says.
And, from the day they’re born, women are told to believe other people’s opinions about their body.
“We’re gaslight from day one to ignore our bodies signals, to ignore what’s being communicated to us from our digestive system and our cardiovascular system and our muscles and instead believe what everybody is telling us is true about our insides.”
Women end up shutting down and believing these things, she says.
“Doctors are incredibly dismissive of women’s experiences. We know from the research that they under medicate womens pain, they believe that women are lying and being overly dramatic when they talk about their pain and discomfort, they blame all of their health problems on their weight and it all is worse for women of colour than it is for white women.”
The answer is all of us caring for each other, not self-care, she says.
“I’m a fan of face masks and bath oils and all the rest it but for me, self-care is the bomb shelter you build in your basement because apparently it’s your job to protect yourself from nuclear war and nobody else is going to do it for you. What if it were all of our collective jobs to end the war.”
Rest can be lying on the sofa looking at the wall, if what you’re doing is daydreaming.
“There’s a neurological reason why daydreaming is important. If you’re doing intellectual work it’s important that you stop for a while, switch your brain off, let your mind just wander, let it float down stream. This ends up being really good because that’s your brain sort of working on the puzzle you’ve handed it and it will hand you an answer if you grant it the permission.”
Bikini Industrial Complex
Referring to the hundred billion dollar industry that profits of our hatred of our bodies and our idea that our body needs to conform to some culturally constructive aspirational beauty ideal that is literally unattainable.
It’s a term that Dr Nagoski’s sister Amelia coined after she spent the first three decades of her life not believing that anything happening in her body was true. She ended up in the hospital and destroying an organ.
“Beauty is not a thing we have to work for, everything in nature is beautiful, a tree that grows straight and tall is beautiful, a tree that grows gnarled and struggling on a cliffside with the waves bashing against it is also beautiful.
“Your body is beautiful because it is a part of nature, my body is beautiful because it is a part of nature, regardless of whether or not it conforms with this sort of fantasy ideal, there’s who you truely are and what the world insists what you’re supposed to be and that’s all a lie… it’s supposed to be what it is now.”
Dr Nagoski is a sex educator at the University of Delaware. She teaches sex education and stress education for women.