Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

The Monitor knows (1) what your goal is; (2) how much effort you’re investing in that goal; and (3) how much progress you’re making. It keeps a running tally of your effort-to-progress ratio, and it has a strong opinion about what that ratio should be. There are so many ways a plan can go wrong, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t, all of which will frustrate your Monitor.1

For example, imagine you’re working toward a simple goal: driving to the mall. And you know it usually takes about, say, twenty minutes. If you’re getting all green lights and you’re zipping right along, that feels nice, right? You’re making progress more quickly and easily than your Monitor expects, and that feels great. Less effort, more progress: satisfied Monitor.

But suppose you get stuck at a traffic light because someone isn’t paying attention. You feel a little annoyed and frustrated, and maybe you try to get around that jerk before the next light. But once you’ve hit one red light, you end up stuck at every traffic light, and with each stop, your frustration burns a little hotter. It’s already been twenty minutes, and you’re only halfway to the mall. “Annoyed and frustrated” escalates to “pissed off.” Then you get on the highway, and there’s an accident! While ambulances and police come and go, you sit there, parked on the highway for forty minutes, fuming and boiling and swearing never to go to the mall ever again. High investment, little progress: ragey Monitor.

     But then! If you sit there long enough, an enormous emotional shift happens inside you. Your Monitor switches its assessment of your goal from “attainable” to “unattainable,” and it pushes you off an emotional cliff, into a pit of despair. Lost in helplessness, your brain abandons hope and you sit in your car sobbing, because all you want to do now is go home, and there’s nothing you can do but sit there and wait.

In an almost painfully funny video posted in January 2017, the satirical news website The Onion reported that “an increasing number of women are leaving the workplace to pursue lying facedown on the floor full-time. A Department of Labor report says lying motionless in utter resignation on nights and weekends is just no longer enough for most women.” That’s the pit of despair: resignation and helplessness.

The tremendous power of understanding the Monitor is that once we’re aware of how it works, we can influence our own brain’s functioning, with strategies for dealing with both the controllable and the uncontrollable stressors.

Dealing with Stressors You Can Control: Planful Problem-Solving

The Monitor keeps track of your effort and your progress. When a lot of effort fails to produce a satisfying amount of progress, we can change the kind of effort we’re investing. For example, the frustration of being stuck in traffic can be minimized with a GPS giving you a new route to go around the traffic. All you need to do is make sure you’ve got the GPS handy. This strategy is called planful problem-solving.

If you carry a purse laden with the complete contents of a drugstore, you already know about planful problem-solving. If you write lists, keep calendars, or follow a budget, you know what planful problem-solving entails. It does what it says on the label: you analyze the problem, you make a plan based on your analysis, and then you execute the plan. The good news is that women are socialized to planfully solve problems. The bad news is that every problem calls for a specific kind of planning.

     For example, if we’re talking about, say, managing cancer treatment while working full-time and raising your kids and being a partner to someone, there are a lot of calendars involved, and information about medication side effects and how they’re managed, and strategies for making sure everyone gets fed and does their homework and gets where they need to go each day. Or if you’re trying to find a job, there’s the routine of looking for postings, sending résumés, attending networking events, prepping for interviews, and so on. There are pragmatic steps to manage the controllable factors, and controlling what you can control makes the rest of it more bearable.

The least intuitive part of planful problem-solving is managing the stress caused by the problems and the solving. As we learned in chapter 1, what works to manage your stressor will rarely help you manage the stress, so remember to build completing the cycle into your plan.

Which brings us to the effective way to deal with uncontrollable stressors.

Dealing with Stressors You Can’t Control: Positive Reappraisal

So imagine that you’re stuck in traffic and your GPS is busted. For this situation, the strategy we turn to is “positive reappraisal.”2

Positive reappraisal involves recognizing that sitting in traffic is worth it. It means deciding that the effort, the discomfort, the frustration, the unanticipated obstacles, and even the repeated failure have value—not just because they are steps toward a worthwhile goal, but because you reframe difficulties as opportunities for growth and learning.3

     Some people naturally notice what’s valuable in difficult situations. These natural optimists expect good things to happen and automatically believe that bad things, if they happen, are temporary, isolated events that will have no lasting impact. If that’s you, congratulations! Optimism is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes related to mental health, physical health, and relationships.4 You probably don’t need any more persuasion or instruction on positive reappraisal. You just keep on keeping on—see the silver lining of every cloud and the rainbows of every storm. Do you.

Pessimists, by contrast, don’t always expect good outcomes and may view bad things, if they happen, as symptomatic of larger-scale problems that could have lasting impact. Amelia is the most pessimistic person we know—we’ve measured it objectively, with survey instruments used to assess pessimism and optimism—and, moreover, she’s a conductor whose professional training teaches her that she can and should be responsible for everything. So she did not buy this “positive reappraisal” thing. It sounded to her like a video a friend of ours shared on Facebook titled “Eight Things Happy People Do Differently.” It included such helpful if idiomatically capitalized gems as “EXPRESS GRATITUDE—never let the things you WANT make you forget about the things you HAVE” and “CULTIVATE OPTIMISM. Stay positive. When it rains, look for Rainbows. When it’s dark, look for Stars.”

That is not what “positive reappraisal” means; it’s not as simple as “look on the bright side” or “find the silver lining” or “enjoy the journey.” Nor is it about not feeling frustrated by the persistent gap between what is and what could or should be. Nor does it mean sticking your fingers in your ears and going, “La la la, nothing is wrong, everything is fine!” With positive reappraisal, you can acknowledge when things are difficult, and you recognize that the difficulty is worth it—it is, in fact, an opportunity.

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