Advice from a Life Coach and the Book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
Stress gets a lot of attention these days. The medical community is beginning to realize that stress is at the root of most of our leading causes of death around the world: heart attack, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, eating disorders, suicide, the list goes on. We can all identify moments in our lives that feel stressful and that we try to avoid, but what many of us don’t realize is that we’re actually living with a constant level of stress in our daily lives. Not the big, scary, easily identifiable stressors, but the everyday stressors that keep our brain in high gear 24/7 and this is what leads to burnout.
What is Stress?
Stress is an evolutionary adaptive response by your body to a perceived threat, that manifests as a neurological and physiological shift called a ‘stress response’. Your heartrate increases, your body pumps out hormones, your blood pressure rises, your digestion and immune function slow down. In essence, your entire body and mind change in response to a perceived threat.
Click here to read more about how your body and brain respond to fear.
Back on the savanna where our ancestors evolved millennia ago, the perceived threats were things like a lion chasing you, and this stress response was the perfect thing for your body to do in that instance – run! Fast forward to today, and the lion is replaced by your angry boss, or the guy cat-calling you on the street, or your threenager throwing a tantrum in the grocery store… and your highly evolved brain and body trigger the same stress response, but you can’t act on it (i.e. you can’t just run away) because we live in a civilized society and you can’t just abandon your child in a grocery store. So, we stamp it down instead and carry it around with us day in and day out.
These small daily acts are perceived by your brain to be equally as threatening as the lion on the savannah, thus your body and brain are in constant stress without you being fully aware. Not surprisingly, this has detrimental effects on your body and mind. When you need a boost of energy and focus the stress response is perfect, but when it is constantly turned on, your body is overrun with stress signals that your body was not made to handle 24/7. This is how stress can lead to burnout, and even illness and death. Because we assume it’s just the big stressors we need to avoid or minimize, we often don’t address or even acknowledge the everyday stressors. And so they pile up, much to our own detriment.
Signs you might be stressed and don’t even know it:
Doing the same thing over and over again with no change in outcome.
Engaging in self-destructive behavior.
Erupting, or having an out of proportion response to something because you have been holding it all in and you explode.
Numbing and avoiding your emotions in order to sidestep dealing with the stress or the stressor.
Your body feeling off; getting sick all of the time, having strange pains or chronic conditions, injuries that won’t heal or just keep coming back.
Dealing with the Stress
The most effective way to deal with the stress is to, as Amelia and Emily call it, ‘complete the cycle’. Remember that lion on the savanna? Well, your body was made to kick into high gear to get you to run away from it. If you were fortunate enough to run to safety, it was likely back to your village where you felt safe and protected, along with those around you, and your body would then register that you were safe and would stop the stress response.
But in today’s world, it’s not so obvious to your brain when you’re out of stressful situations because your brain and body did not evolve to tackle modern, constant stressors like doing your taxes, rude bosses, or dealing with a pervert. So, to let your brain and body know that you are ‘safe’ and out of a stressful situation, you have to take action to complete the stress cycle, release stress reducing hormones, and relax your heart rate. The best way to do this? You guessed it: Exercise!
But for those of you who hate exercise, or don’t have time every day (because yes, you have to complete the cycle every day!) here are some other effective strategies:
My favorite is to tense your muscles progressively from toe to head, picture the stressor in your mind, then picture beating it up or eliminating it altogether. Hold that thought and tense your muscles for a slow count of 10. Breathe. Keep going. Tense each muscle and picture eliminating the stressor until you reach your head. Then, tense your whole body and let out a big sigh.
If that feels like too much then try to get some deep breathing, good sleep (the kind that is consistent and uninterrupted), and drink lots of water – about 12 cups a day. Also try incorporating one of the following each day:
Positive social interaction
Affection – my personal favorite is a 20 second hug
Spend time petting an animal
A big cry
How do you know you have released the stress? Something will have shifted in you. I know that sounds vague, but it’s a very personal, individual experience. My best example is my toddler. When she is upset and crying uncontrollably, she is in the thick of her stress. But when she calms down a bit and begins to whimper and take deep shuttering breaths, her tense little body relaxes, and I know the stress has shifted; she has made it through her cycle.
Dealing with the Stressor
Often, dealing with the stressor outright is not possible. Again, we usually can’t yell at the boss, quit the job, abandon our kids… But there are some helpful tools we can use to help our brain not activate the stress response in these situations. We can appease our Monitor.
The Monitor is the mechanism in the brain that decides when to persist and when to give up, also known as the discrepancy-reducing/increasing feedback loop. The Monitor knows your goal, how much effort you are investing in said goal, and how much progress you are making. It then gives you signals of when to keep going, when to freak out, and when to quit. Reducing our stress and our burnout means keeping our Monitor happy.
How to Keep Your Monitor Happy: Change your Mindset
What is your mindset? What are the most common words in your vocabulary? What are the thoughts that are most frequently in your head? When you are in a scarcity mindset you will be constantly looking for and focusing on what is lacking in your life, which overwhelms your Monitor. When you are in an abundance mindset, you will understand that the struggle is part of the process, there is plenty of time to accomplish the goal, each step is part of the success, and you won’t struggle or want to quit as often.
Check out my post all about scarcity and abundance and how to shift your mindset.
Planful Problem Solving
Planful problem solving is changing the kind of effort you put into a goal. This is for the things you can control, such as being prepared with various tools for different scenarios. I.e., carrying around a purse with everything you or your children might need for a day out. Yes, some of the circumstances are beyond your control, but you can plan for them, be relatively assured of what may happen, and have a plan or solution ready.
When you cannot control the outcome, you use positive reappraisal. Acknowledge that it is difficult, and that the difficulty is worth it. Tell your Monitor that you want the struggle. The struggle is the whole point; it’s an opportunity to learn and grown stronger, more flexible, etc. I’m certain you’ve already done this in your life at some point. Just think about the times in your life that you were the proudest of yourself. Chances are they were difficult moments, but you made it through to the other side. Worth it, right? That is positive reappraisal. Telling your brain that you want the struggle.
Redefine Winning and Failing
When things get really tough and you keep failing, you need to redefine winning. To keep at a difficult goal or situation and keep your Monitor from wanting to quit, you need to redefine what success looks like. Don’t start with a goal like reaching the top of Mt. Everest. Start with a smaller goal like getting the right gear, getting in shape, doing some research. Baby steps can keep your Monitor feeling happy and motivated rather than overwhelmed and wanting to throw in the towel. This is why setting incremental goals is key to accomplishing your larger goals.
For those times you try to end up in one place and find yourself somewhere totally different, you need to redefine failing. This is where positive reappraisal meets redefining winning, or what some call post-traumatic growth. Realize that the journey is the best part – not the destination – because we rarely end up where we originally intended. If your Monitor understands that, you’ll struggle a lot less along the way because your brain will not be trying to stop you at every unexpected turn.
I think this is so true with ephemeral goals like, ’to be happy’. That one will always set you and your Monitor up for failure because any time you experience a negative emotion, your brain will freak out and want to quit. Instead, if you set the goal of being flexible, present, and feeling all of your emotions, when you feel happy your Monitor will too, but when you feel frustrated or depressed, your Monitor won’t worry that something has gone terribly wrong. By redefining ‘winning’ or happiness (or just getting rid of the word happy altogether) and aiming for satisfied, present, and living the full human experience, you can radically change your stress level and your outlook on life.
Trust Yourself and Know When to Give Up
You also need to know when to give up. Often this takes some analytical reasoning. In the book they have a worksheet! The gist is, ask yourself these questions:
What are the benefits of continuing/stopping?
What are the costs of continuing/stopping?
And then do the numbers.
BUT often times our intuition knows when to move on before we need to resort to lists. We just have to be in tune with and trust ourselves enough to listen. The more stressed and fearful you are, the less likely you are to make a change or to move on. When you feel scarce, you cling to what you have even if you know it’s time to move on. When you feel abundant, you trust yourself and the world and that you can move on to find something better.
Women often persist in situations until they are too burnt out to do anything else. This is where having boundaries is so important. We can redefine winning and failing and practice positive reappraisal and planful problem solving all we want, but if we’re not setting boundaries for our own wellbeing and the people we care for, we will succumb to our stress in one way or another.
Know and Live Your Core Values
In the book, they talk about a broader something larger, like spirituality, achievement, community. More along the lines of defining your purpose and living for that purpose. When things get really rocky in life, our brain needs to take hold of our ‘something larger’ to stay the course. When you have a clear view of what your something larger is, you can deal with life’s stressors and uncertainties in a healthy and constructive way.
I think this is still a bit too lofty of a goal because it places the importance on doing. I would argue that keeping your Monitor happy through engaging in something larger is about living with and through your Personal Core Values. This will help you to feel engaged with something larger even on a day-to-day basis. It is much easier to know your core values and make decisions based on those day in and day out than it is to always strive to be engaged in meaningful work and your purpose in life. When you are feeling stuck or dissatisfied with your life, a situation, your work, etc., you can always turn to your core values to find your sense of balance and direction. I have a post all about how to determine your Personal Core Values, check it out…it is different than you might think!
Living through your core values is engaging in the things that are important and meaningful to YOU, not to anyone else. The things that bring you a sense of purpose and value.
Stress is not bad for you, but being stuck in the stress cycle is. Being human and living ‘well’ doesn’t require you to be in a perpetually calm and safe state. Living ‘well’ mean being able to move fluidly between a state of calm and risk, safety and adventure, stress and stasis, and then back again. To do this we have to learn to identify our stressors (because they are not always what we might think) and then learn how to manage the stressors we cannot change by shifting our mindset, living from our core values, and completing the stress cycle daily. This is tough work. It takes Guts, But I believe in you!