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Beating Burnout: Sisters Write Book To Help Women Overcome Stress Cycle


When it comes to taking care of yourself, there is no shortage of advice, especially if you're a woman. Drink green juice. Go to spin class. Organize your house - really organize it. At work, lean in, not too far in. Feel like too much? Twin sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski agree. They've written a new book that asks us all to step back and really look at how women are pushed to the breaking point. It's called "Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle." The sisters told us why they decided to write this book. It was after Amelia landed in the hospital twice.

AMELIA NAGOSKI: I was in doctoral school getting my doctorate of musical arts in conducting. I was also working two part-time jobs. And I'm the mother of three people who were teenagers at the time. And I was commuting 65 miles each way. And the stresses of my life were overwhelming. And I was totally in denial about how hard I was working and how much challenge I was actually having.

I had no idea how much my body was suffering. So it took me totally by surprise when in the middle of one night, I woke up in such pain that I had my husband drive me to the emergency room. And I was in the hospital for four days. And they didn't come up with a diagnosis. They just said well, it's stress. You just need to relax.

And that is not an evidence-based strategy for coping with stress, it turns out. So I spent about the next year - I called Emily, of course, who brings me a big stack of books because this is the way she shows her affection is peer-reviewed science.

SHAHANI: Oh, wow. That's the sister to have.

E NAGOSKI: Yeah. So it was very supportive and convenient to have a twin sister who has a Ph.D. in public health. So in the next year, I started working on doing the actual things that the science says will combat burnout. It was too late. And a year later, I ended up back in the hospital. And they removed my appendix, which had been inflamed.


E NAGOSKI: Inflammation is a result of extreme stress.

SHAHANI: So, you know, Emily, when your sister is in and out of the hospital, and you're bringing her books, you talk about teaching her about emotions. Can you just give an example of what you mean by that? Like, what is a conversation you had to have with your sister?

EMILY NAGOSKI: Well, it mostly happened, like, your emotions are biological events that happen in your body. It's physiological, real. Emotions are not just in your head. They are all over your body, in your chemistry. So she's reading these books, and she sees the word rage on the page and spontaneously bursts into sobs. And she calls me on the phone, and is like, your book here says that feelings are physical.

I was like, you're a choral conductor who expresses emotion through your body. You practice yoga. And she still, sort of, had not put it together that just because you've dealt with the stressors, that doesn't mean that you've dealt with the physical event of the stress in your body.

SHAHANI: One of the lessons in your book is about completing the stress cycle. I loved this analogy of yours, this idea of a lion. Explain the concept of completing the stress cycle through the lion, Emily.

E NAGOSKI: So this is the foundation of it all. Our physiological stress response is very well designed to help us survive short-term acute stressors, like being chased by a lion. When you see the lion, your body floods with adrenaline and cortisol and glycogen all in preparation to help you engage in a behavior to help save your life. In this case, it's going to be running.

So here comes the lion. You start to run. There's only two possible outcomes. Either you get eaten by the lion - in which case, none of the rest of this matters - or you manage to make it all the way back to your village. And somebody sees you running and opens the door and waves you in. And you both stand with your shoulder against the door until the lion finally gives up. And when that happens, you look at the person who just saved your life. And you are flooded with this sense of gratitude, connection and peace. And that's biochemically the complete stress response cycle.

Because we are, alas, almost never chased by lions now, our stressors tend to be things that are not actually going to threaten our lives. The jerk at work, traffic, these things are not going to kill us, but they do elevate our stress response in a similar way, but they don't offer us the same opportunity to complete the stress response cycle. So we're walking around with a couple decades of incomplete activated stress response cycles in our bodies that are just waiting for us to go ahead and do the thing we need to do.

Physical activity is the most efficient. Affection is really powerful. One of our favorite recommendations is the 20 second hug. If you hold someone that long, it communicates to your body that you have a person in your life whom you love and trust enough and who loves and trusts you enough to stand this close together. And your chemistry shifts into a state of I have come home, which is the end of the stress response cycle.

SHAHANI: At the end of each chapter, you have these little TL;DR recaps - it's internet talk for too long; didn't read. So what is the TL;DR for this conversation? What's the one thing you really want people to take away, Emily?

E NAGOSKI: It's that wellness is not a state of being. It is not a state of mind. It is a state of action.

SHAHANI: Amelia, what would you add?

E NAGOSKI: That the cure for burnout is not self-care. It's all of us caring for each other.

SHAHANI: Emily and Amelia Nagoski are co-authors of "Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle." It's out now. Thank you both for joining me.

E NAGOSKI: Thank you.

E NAGOSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.