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Notes on Burnout

I just finished Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski, twin sisters that pool their knowledge, experience, and anecdotes to teach women how to live a less stressful life. They use scientific knowledge, practical strategies, and unveiling of everyday truths to explain why women get to the point of burnout. Although I was turned off by the rants against the patriarchy, overall, I felt that the information was enlightening and useful. The authors define terms in a way that leads to deeper understanding and immediate application.

Here are my notes taken directly from the text:

Emotions are tunnels and to prevent getting stressed we need to go through the tunnel (of sadness, rage, anxiety) completely. Getting stuck inside the tunnel generates stress because you were unable to complete the cycle. The digestive, immune, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and reproductive systems have not received that signal that they are safe; they are stuck in stress mode.

Stress is different from stressors. Stress is the emotion or neurological and physiological shift that occurs in your body because of people, situations, things in your everyday life. Stressors are the people, places, situations and things that activate the stress response in your body. Dealing with a stressor (like ending a relationship with a toxic person) doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself. You still have to complete the cycle to tell your body it is safe. There are several strategies to deal with stress. They are easy ways to complete the stress cycle: physical activity, breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection (20-second hug or 6-second kiss), big ol’ cry, and creative expression. Thirty minutes of any of these strategies will move you through the tunnel.

Completing the cycle of stress, going through the tunnel of emotions and coming out at the other end, creates the physiological shift that tells your systems that they are safe. Completing the cycle feels like you can breathe easier and you feel a little bit better. This is why wellness is a state of action, not a state of being. Being well means putting in the time to complete the stress cycles that accumulate throughout the day. That’s why its important to build into these strategies into your day.

Each person has a “monitor or brain mechanism that manages the gap between where we are and where we are going”. It decides whether to keep trying to reach our goals or to give up. The monitor knows: what your goal is, how much effort you are investing to get there, how much progress you are making. It keeps a running tally. Frustration happens when our progress toward a goal feels more effortful than we expect it to be. To cope with the frustration of trying to reach a goal, start by redefining what it means to “win” at this goal.

Positive reappraisal is to acknowledge when things are difficult and decide that the effort is worth it. In an experiment two groups of people were given the same text. The people who read the text difficult (almost unintelligible) font remembered the content better than those how had a clear font. Struggle increases creativity and learning, strengthens people’s capacity to cope with greater difficulties, and empowers you to continue working towards the goals that matter to you. Reappraisal changes your brain functioning by consistently “converting affective pains into cognitive gains”.

Setting small, incremental goals increases motivation. These goals must be: soon (doesn’t require patience), certain (goal is within your control), positive (something that feels good), concrete (measurable), specific (not big or ambiguous), personal (tailored to your goal). When you redefine winning and you set goals that are achievable in themselves, success is its won reward.

Lastly, widen your focus to as to see the inadvertent benefits you’ve gained on the way. It means that even when you fail you recognize the failing’s unintended positive outcomes.

Another way to stave away burnout is to lead a meaningful life. Meaning is good for you. Meaning is the nourishing experience of feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. It helps us thrive when things are going well and cope when things go wrong in our lives”. Meaning is not found; meaning is made. How to make meaning? Engage actively with something larger than yourself. Sources of meaning can come from personal achievement, spirituality, connection with another person. Look at the moments when you feel a deep sense of meaning and listen to your inner voice. People find their meaning by writing their own obituary, asking a friend to describe the “real you”, remembering a time when you experienced a deep sense of purpose.

Pursuing a life of meaning is in direct conflict with the human giver syndrome, which is living your life to please and make others happy. Be prepared to receive some pushback from the people that want to propagate the culture of human giver syndrome. Leading a life of meaning makes it so you can never be separated from your something larger, because it comes from inside you. Whatever calls you is inside you!

To turn bad experiences into opportunities, to connect to your something larger and make meaning, rewrite the narrative of a bad experience focusing on finding the lessons and strengths gained during the adversity. This strategy helps people notice the inner strengths they leveraged to survive. It also allows your body to feel past wounds, learn that those feelings are not dangerous, and complete the stress-response cycle activated all those years ago.

The inability to try is called “learned helplessness”. Animals, including humans, who repeatedly find themselves in bad situations from which they cannot escape eventually don’t even try to escape, even when given the opportunity. When an animal or person has “learned helplessness” it goes straight past the frustration of trying to the pit of despair. It is not a rational choice. The only way to unlearn helplessness is to do a thing; to take action.

Females are biologically more equipped to thrive under stressful situations than males; they work harder in the face of difficulties because it takes twice as long for their brain to switch to into helplessness. One stressors women experience is when they are told that we are not experiencing anything different than a man; that the playing field is equal. Just knowing that the game is rigged, that patriarchy makes it easier for men than for women to advance, can help you feel better right away. Knowing also prevents gaslighting which is when someone or something (like an institution) makes you feel that whatever is wrong is your fault.

The differences in playing field can be compared to the landscape two trees are planted. The experience of a black woman can be compared to a tree planted on a cliff that needs to survive the elements of wind and rain, and grow twisted to get a bit of sunlight versus the experience of a white man, which can be compared to a tree planted on a field with fertile soil.

According to scientific research loneliness is a form of starvation and can diminish a person’s health like smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. People need both connection and autonomy for wellbeing. When people spend time together, they become synchronized, their breathing, heartbeat, movements fall into the same rhythm, even strangers sitting next to each other. This is why it is so important to choose the people you spend time with and the reason why higher marital quality leads to health. An energy creating environment requires two ingredients: trust and connected knowing.

Trust is the belief that the people around us will reciprocate in proportion to what we give them. Lots of species track this reciprocation. Trustworthy people are there for each other benefiting both and generating positive energy. People who don’t trust and aren’t trustworthy are outside the bubble. Authenticity is “being totally yourself” and sharing the most intimate parts of yourself, including the parts people might judge, with others.

Separate knowing is to separate an idea from its context and assess it in terms of some externally imposed rules that have proven to be immensely powerful as a tool for scientific advancement. Connected knowing involves coming to understand an idea by exploring it within its context. You put yourself in the shoes of the other person, to try on their point of view. It insists that we can only understand something if we also understand how it relates to the context it comes from. The most energy-cresting characteristic of connected knowing is that it’s a way to connect with and understand our own internal experience and develop our own identities, through connection with others. The blend of connected and separate knowing is “constructed knowing.”

Sadness signals that you need to reconnect with environment of love to generate energy. Rage gives you strength and energy and the urge to fight, and sharing that energy in the bubble changes it from something potentially dangerous to something safe and potentially transformative.

Synchronized activities, through rhythmic movement, song, play, effort to achieve a shared goal create a neurological bridge that breaks down the barrier between us and other people dissolved. The pleasure of synchronized movement is built into our biology, and it’s a powerful tool to access your greatest well-being. We are all constantly “co-regulating” one another without even being aware it’s happening—synchronizing heartbeats, changing moods, and helping one another feel seen and heard.

What makes you stronger? A growing body of research has established that we do our best at any given task for only a limited amount of time, energy, or attention, then our performance drops off, our attention wanders, and our motivation evaporates. But resting after a depleting activity eliminates the effects of fatigue. It’s increasingly clear that the more balanced the linkages between the different domains of the default mode network are, and the more fluidly a person can toggle from default to attentive, and the more creative, socially skilled, and happy a person is likely to be. Therefore, mental rest is not idleness; it is the time necessary for your brain to process the world. Boredom is the discomfort you experience when your brain is in active-attention mode, but can’t latch on to anything to attend to.

In the event of an accident when the right leg is healing in a cast, you can exercise your left leg. The signal from the left leg travels up the spine and crosses from one side to the other, sparking growth in the right leg—not as much as in the left, but enough to prevent some of the atrophy of disuse. This is the original meaning of “cross-training”—literally, training across the spine. Exercising one part of you strengthens all of you; exercising the strongest parts of you strengthens the rest of you most efficiently. The same goes for cognitive, emotional, and social effort. Active rest is working one gear while resting the others.

We are built to oscillate between wakefulness and sleep, because we require the things our brain does on its own during sleep to make us fully functional while we’re awake. So how much rest is “adequate”? Science says 42 percent of the day. That’s the percentage of time your body and brain need you to spend resting. It’s about ten hours out of every twenty-four. Rest includes anything that is not work for money or family. Active rest can be reading, exercising, meditating, or doing something enjoyable and relaxing. They fall within the 10 required hours.

The madwoman in the attic is a demon from our past or our present that taunts us and tries to stop us from doing the things we want to do. It is a literary symbol of women’s entrapment in dichotomous roles of “demon” and “angel”. The madwoman in the attic grew inside us, to manage the chasm between who we are and who Human Giver Syndrome expects us to be. She is the part of us that has the impossible, tormenting task of bridging the unbridgeable chasm between us and this “expected”. Many years of research have confirmed that self-forgiveness is associated with greater physical and mental well-being. All without diminishing your motivation to do the things that matter to you.

Beating ourselves up results in pain; so, at the same time that we’re beating ourselves up, we’re looking for ways to manage that pain, to make it bearable. What would actually happen if we put down the whip, stopped beating ourselves up, and turned toward our difficult feelings with kindness and compassion? The next thing that happens is that those wounds you’ve been inflicting and reopening for years finally begin to heal. Self-compassion isn’t always a comfortable or peaceful experience, but it does help us grow mightier. The purpose of personifying your madwoman in the attic is to create a dynamic where you can relate to her like a friend. Personifying our self-criticism allows us to apply connected knowing. With connected knowing, you can separate yourself from your madwoman and build a relationship with her. This friendship with your own internal experience is powerful. In the end, what matters is not the size of the chasm or the nature of the chasm or anything else; what matters is how you manage the chasm—which is to say, how you relate to your madwoman.

James Baldwin famously said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning to look at the uncomfortable truths, turning to face the strange, is the terrifying advantage. A short-term quick-fix gratitude boost is to be grateful for who you are. A long-term gratitude lifter is to be grateful for how things happen. At the end of each day, think of some event or circumstance for which you feel grateful, and write about it. Train your brain to notice not just the positive events themselves, but also the personal strengths you leveraged to create them and the external resources that made it possible. Being compassionate toward yourself is both the least you can do and the single most important thing you can do to make the world a better place.

Happiness is predicated on ‘happenings,’ on what’s occurring, on whether your life is going right, and whether all is well. Joy arises from an internal clarity about our purpose.” When we engage with something larger than ourselves, we make meaning; and when we resonate with that Something Larger, we feel joy. And because our Something Larger is within us, no external circumstances can take away our source of joy, no matter the “happenings” around us.

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