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Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Author:Emily Nagoski

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Emily Nagoski


This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing “enough.” Which is every woman we know—including us.

You’ve heard the usual advice over and over: exercise, green smoothies, self-compassion, coloring books, mindfulness, bubble baths, gratitude….You’ve probably tried a lot of it. So have we. And sometimes it helps, at least for a while. But then the kids are struggling in school or our partner needs support through a difficulty or a new work project lands in our laps, and we think, I’ll do the self-care thing as soon as I finish this.

The problem is not that women don’t try. On the contrary, we’re trying all the time, to do and be all the things everyone demands from us. And we will try anything—any green smoothie, any deep-breathing exercise, any coloring book or bath bomb, any retreat or vacation we can shoehorn into our schedules—to be what our work and our family and our world demand. We try to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others. And then along comes another struggling kid or terrible boss or difficult semester.

    The problem is not that we aren’t trying. The problem isn’t even that we don’t know how. The problem is the world has turned “wellness” into yet another goal everyone “should” strive for, but only people with time and money and nannies and yachts and Oprah’s phone number can actually achieve.

So this book is different from anything else you’ll read about burnout. We’ll figure out what wellness can look like in your actual real life, and we’ll confront the barriers that stand between you and your own well-being. We’ll put those barriers in context, like landmarks on a map, so we can find paths around and over and through them—or sometimes just blow them to smithereens.

With science.

Who We Are and Why We Wrote Burnout

Emily is a health educator with a PhD and a New York Times bestselling book, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. When she was traveling all over talking about that book, readers kept telling her the most life-changing information in the book wasn’t the sex science; it was those sections about stress and emotion processing.

When she told her identical twin sister, Amelia, a choral conductor, Amelia blinked like that was obvious. “Of course. Nobody teaches us how to feel our feelings. Hell, I was taught. Any conservatory-trained musician learns to feel feelings singing on stages or standing on podiums. But that didn’t mean I knew how to do it in the real world. And when I finally learned, it probably saved my life,” she said.

     “Twice,” she added.

And Emily, recalling how it felt to watch her sister crying in a hospital gown, said, “We should write a book about that.”

Amelia agreed, saying, “A book about that would’ve made my life a lot better.”

This is that book.

It turned into a lot more than a book about stress. Above all, it became a book about connection. We humans are not built to do big things alone, we are built to work together. That’s what we wrote about, and it’s how we wrote it.


When we told women we were writing a book called Burnout, nobody ever asked, “What’s burnout?” (Mostly what they said was, “Is it out yet? Can I read it?”) We all have an intuitive sense of what “burnout” is; we know how it feels in our bodies and how our emotions crumble in the grip of it. But when it was first coined as a technical term by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, “burnout” was defined by three components:

1. emotional exhaustion—the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long;

2. depersonalization—the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion; and

3. decreased sense of accomplishment—an unconquerable sense of futility: feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.1

And here’s an understatement: Burnout is highly prevalent. Twenty to thirty percent of teachers in America have moderately high to high levels of burnout.2 Similar rates are found among university professors and international humanitarian aid workers.3 Among medical professionals, burnout can be as high as 52 percent.4 Nearly all the research on burnout is on professional burnout—specifically “people who help people,” like teachers and nurses—but a growing area of research is “parental burnout.”5

     In the forty years since the original formulation, research has found it’s the first element in burnout, emotional exhaustion, that’s most strongly linked to negative impacts on our health, relationships, and work—especially for women.6

So what exactly is an “emotion,” and how do you exhaust it?

Emotions, at their most basic level, involve the release of neurochemicals in the brain, in response to some stimulus. You see the person you have a crush on across the room, your brain releases a bunch of chemicals, and that triggers a cascade of physiological changes—your heart beats faster, your hormones shift, and your stomach flutters. You take a deep breath and sigh. Your facial expression changes; maybe you blush; even the timbre of your voice becomes warmer. Your thoughts shift to memories of the crush and fantasies about the future, and you suddenly feel an urge to cross the room and say hi. Just about every system in your body responds to the chemical and electrical cascade activated by the sight of the person.

That’s emotion. It’s automatic and instantaneous. It happens everywhere, and it affects everything. And it’s happening all the time—we feel many different emotions simultaneously, even in response to one stimulus. You may feel an urge to approach your crush, but also, simultaneously, feel an urge to turn away and pretend you didn’t notice them.

Left to their own devices, emotions—these instantaneous, whole-body reactions to some stimulus—will end on their own. Your attention shifts from your crush to some other topic, and the flush of infatuation eases, until that certain special someone crosses your mind or your path once more. The same goes for the jolt of pain you feel when someone is cruel to you or the flash of disgust when you smell something unpleasant. They just end.

In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end.

     Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.

We may get stuck simply because we’re constantly being exposed to situations that activate emotion—our crush is there, all day, every day, even if only in our thoughts, and so we’re trapped in our own longing. Or we return to our stressful job every single day. No wonder “helping professions” are so exhausting—you’re confronted with people in need, all day, day after day. No wonder parenting is so exhausting—once you’re a parent, you’re never not a parent. You’re always going through the tunnel.

Sometimes we get stuck because we can’t find our way through. The most difficult feelings—rage, grief, despair, helplessness—may be too treacherous to move through alone. We get lost and need someone else, a loving presence, to help us find our way.

And sometimes we get stuck because we’re trapped in a place where we are not free to move through the tunnel.

Many of us are trapped in just this way, because of a problem we call “Human Giver Syndrome.”