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

Science is the best idea humanity has ever had. It’s a systematic way of exploring the nature of reality, of testing and proving or disproving ideas. But it’s important to remember that science is ultimately a specialized way of being wrong. That is, every scientist tries to be (a) slightly less wrong than the scientists who came before them, by proving that something we thought was true actually isn’t, and (b) wrong in a way that can be tested and proven, which results in the next scientist being slightly less wrong. Research is the ongoing process of learning new things that show us a little more of what’s true, which inevitably reveals how wrong we used to be, and it is never “finished.” So whenever you read a headline like “New Study Shows…” or “Latest Research Finds…,” read with skepticism. One study does not equal proof of anything. In Burnout, we’ve aimed to use ideas that have been established over multiple decades and reinforced by multiple approaches. Still, science doesn’t offer perfect truth, only the best available truth. Science, in a sense, is not an exact science.

A second caveat: Social science is generally done by measuring lots of people and assessing the average measurement of all those people, because people vary. Just because something is true about a group of people—like, American women are, on average, five feet four inches tall—doesn’t mean it’s true about any specific individual within that group. So if you meet an American woman who isn’t five foot four, there’s nothing wrong with her, she’s just different from the average. And there’s nothing wrong with the science, either; it’s true that women are, on average, five foot four—but that tells us nothing in particular about any specific woman we may meet. So if you read some science in this book that describes “women” but doesn’t describe you, that doesn’t mean the science is wrong and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. People vary, and they change. Science is too blunt an instrument to capture every woman’s situation.

     A third caveat: Science is often expensive, and who pays for it can influence the outcome and whether or not the results are published. As enthusiastic as we are about evidence-based practices, it’s important to remember where that evidence comes from and why we might not see contrary evidence.10

Science has a fourth specific limitation worth mentioning in a book about women: When a research article says it studied “women,” it almost always means it studied people who were born in a body that made all the grown-ups around them say, “It’s a girl!” and then that person was raised as a girl and grew into an adult who felt comfortable in the psychological identity and social role of “woman.” There are plenty of people who identify as women for whom at least one of those things is not true, and there are plenty of people who don’t identify as women, for whom one or more of those things is true. In this book, when we use the word “woman,” we mostly mean “people who identify as women,” but it’s important to remember that when we describe the science, we’re limited to the women who were identified at birth and raised as women, because that’s mostly who has been studied. (Sorry.)

So. We try to be as science-based as we can be, but we’re aware of its limits.

That’s where the art comes in.

As science fiction author Cassandra Clare writes, “Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact.” This is what storytelling is for—and in fact research has found that people understand science better when it’s communicated through storytelling! So side by side with the neuroscience and computational biology, we’ll talk about Disney princesses, sci-fi dystopias, pop music, and more, because story goes where science can’t.


Here’s a real study that real scientists really conducted:11

Research participants were given some mazes—just lines on paper—and instructed that their goal was to get the cartoon mouse from one side of the maze to the other. In one version of the maze, a cartoon owl loomed over the page, hunting the mouse. In another version, a morsel of cheese awaited the mouse at its destination.

Which group completed the maze faster, the ones who were moving toward the cheese, or the ones who were fleeing from the owl?

The cheese group. Participants completed more mazes, more quickly, when their imaginations were propelled toward a reward even as mild as cartoon cheese, than when running away from an uncomfortable state even as subtle as the threat of a cartoon owl.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. If you’re moving toward a specific, desired goal, your attention and efforts are focused on that single outcome. But if you’re moving away from a threat, it hardly matters where you end up, as long as it’s somewhere safe from the threat.

The moral of the story is: We thrive when we have a positive goal to move toward, not just a negative state we’re trying to move away from. If we hate where we are, our first instinct often is to run aimlessly away from the owl of our present circumstances, which may lead us somewhere not much better than where we started. We need something positive to move toward. We need the cheese.

The “cheese” of Burnout isn’t just feeling less overwhelmed and exhausted, or no longer worrying whether you’re doing “enough.” The cheese is growing mighty, feeling strong enough to cope with all the owls and mazes and anything else the world throws at you.

Our promise to you is this: Wherever you are in your life, whether you’re struggling in a pit of despair and searching for a way out, or you’re doing great and want tools to grow mightier, you will find something important in these pages. We’ll show you science that proves you’re normal and you’re not alone. We’ll offer evidence-based tools to use when you’re struggling and that you can share with people you love when they’re struggling. We’ll surprise you with science that contradicts the “commonsense” knowledge you’ve spent your whole life believing. And we’ll inspire and empower you to create positive change in your own life and the lives of those you love.

     Writing this book did all of these things for us—showed us we’re normal and we’re not alone, taught us important skills to use when we’re struggling, and surprised us and empowered us. It has already changed our lives, and we think it will change yours, too.


What You Take with You



    “I’ve decided to start selling drugs so I can quit my job.”

This is how Amelia’s friend Julie recently answered the question “How are you?” the Saturday before the new school year started. She was kidding, of course…except she wasn’t. She’s a middle school teacher. Her burnout had reached an intensity where merely the anticipation of the start of the first semester had activated a level of dread that left her reaching for the box of Chardonnay by 2 P.M.

Nobody likes to think of their kids’ middle school teacher as burned out, embittered, and day-drinking, but she’s not alone. Burnout—with its cynicism, sense of helplessness, and, above all, emotional exhaustion—is startlingly ubiquitous.

     “I saw that story about the teacher who showed up on the first day of school drunk with no pants, and I thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’?” Julie told Amelia, from the bottom of her first glass.

“Dread is anxiety on steroids,” Amelia said, remembering her own days teaching middle school music, “and the anxiety comes from the accumulation, day after day, of stress that never ends.”

“Yes,” Julie declared, filling her glass again.

“The thing about teaching is, you can’t ever get rid of the causes of the stress,” Amelia said. “And I don’t mean the kids.”

“Right?” Julie agreed. “The kids are why I’m there. It’s the administration and the paperwork and that crap.”

“And you can’t get rid of those kinds of stressors,” Amelia said, “but you can get rid of the stress itself, when you know how to complete the stress response cycle.”

“Yes,” Julie said again, emphatically. Then she said, “What do you mean, ‘complete the cycle’?”

* * *

This chapter is the answer to Julie’s question, and it might be the most important idea in the book: Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress. To deal with your stress, you have to complete the cycle.


Let’s start by differentiating our stress from our stressors.