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

And the cycle begins again.

We get stuck in the stress response, because we’re stuck in a stress-activating situation. That’s not always bad—it’s only bad when the stress outpaces our capacity to process it. Which, alas, is a lot of the time, because…

2. Social Appropriateness. Sometimes the brain activates a stress response and you can’t do the thing it’s trying to tell you to do:

“Run!” it says, pumping out adrenaline for you.

“I can’t!” you say. “I’m in the middle of an exam!”

Or, “Punch that asshole in the face!” it says, dumping glucocorticoids into your bloodstream.

“I can’t!” you say. “He’s my client!”

So you sit politely and smile benignly and do your best, while your body stews in stress juice, waiting for you to do something.

And sometimes the world tells you it’s wrong to feel that stress—wrong for so many reasons, in so many ways. It’s not nice; it’s weak; it’s impolite.

Many of us were raised to be “good girls,” to be “nice.” Fear and anger and other uncomfortable emotions can cause distress in the people around you, so it’s not nice to feel those things in front of other people. We smile and ignore our feelings, because our feelings matter less than the other person’s.

     And also it’s weak to feel those feelings, our culture has taught us. You’re a smart, strong woman, so when you’re walking down the street and a guy shouts, “Nice tits!” you tell yourself to ignore it. You tell yourself you’re not in danger, it’s irrational to feel angry or afraid, and anyway, that guy isn’t worth it, he doesn’t matter.

Meanwhile, your brain shouts, “Gross!” and makes you walk faster.

“What?” the guy who isn’t worth it calls after you. “Can’t you take a compliment?”

“Just ignore it,” you tell yourself, swallowing the adrenaline. “You’re too strong to be affected by this.”

But it’s not just that it’s not nice, and it’s not just that it’s weak, it’s that it’s impolite, we’re taught. When your cousin posts a misogynistic comment on Facebook, you could YELL AT HIM FOR REPEATING NONSENSE THAT IS NOT MERELY FACTUALLY INCORRECT BUT ALSO MORALLY WRONG OMFG I CAN’T BELIEVE I EVEN STILL HAVE TO SAY THESE THINGS. Then he—and probably several other people—will respond that you might have a point, but he can’t listen to you when you’re so shrill. So angry. You need to make your point more politely if you want to be taken seriously.

Be nice, be strong, be polite. No feelings for you.

3. It’s Safer. Is there a strategy for dealing with, say, street harassment, that deals with both the situation and the stress caused by the situation? Sure. Turn around and slap that guy in the face. But then what? Will he suddenly realize that street harassment is bad and thus stop doing it? Probably not. More likely, the situation will escalate and he’ll hit you, in which case it just got way more dangerous. Sometimes walking away is the win. Smiling and being nice, ignoring it and telling yourself it doesn’t matter—these are survival strategies. Use them with pride. Just don’t forget that these survival strategies do not deal with the stress itself. They postpone your body’s need to complete the cycle; they don’t replace it.

* * *

     So many ways to deny, ignore, or suppress your stress response! For all these reasons and more, most of us are walking around with decades of incomplete stress response cycles simmering away in our chemistry, just waiting for a chance to complete.

And then there’s freeze.


We’ve been talking about the stress response in the familiar terms of “fight or flight.” When you feel threatened, the brain does a split-second assessment to determine which response is more likely to result in your survival. Flight happens when your brain notices a threat and decides that you’re more likely to survive by trying to escape. That’s what happens when you run from a lion. Fight happens when your brain decides you’re more likely to survive the threat by trying to conquer it. From a biological point of view, fight and flight are essentially the same thing. Flight is fear—avoidance—whereas fight is anger—approach—but they’re both the “GO!” stress response of the sympathetic nervous system. They tell you to do something.

Freeze is special. Freeze happens when the brain assesses the threat and decides you’re too slow to run and too small to fight, and so your best hope for survival is to “play dead” until the threat goes away or someone comes along to help you. Freeze is your last-ditch stress response, reserved for threats that the brain perceives as life-threatening, when fight or flight don’t stand a chance. In the middle of the gas pedal of stress response, your brain slams on the brakes—the parasympathetic nervous system swamping the sympathetic—and you shut down.

     Imagine you’re a gazelle running away from a lion. You’re midflight, full of adrenaline—but you feel the lion’s teeth chomp into your hip. What do you do? You can’t run anymore—the lion has hold of you. You can’t fight—the lion is much stronger. So your nervous system slams on the brakes. You collapse and play dead. That’s freeze.

You don’t have to know about freeze in order for your brain to choose it, but if you don’t know that freeze exists, you may think about a circumstance where you were unsafe and wonder why you didn’t kick and scream, why you didn’t fight or run—why, in fact, you felt as if you couldn’t scream or kick or run. The reason is that you really couldn’t. Your brain was trying to keep you alive in the face of a threat that seemed unsurvivable, so it slammed on the brakes in a last-ditch attempt to do that.

And you know what? It worked. Here you are. Alive and reading a book about stress. Hello! We’re really glad you’re here. We’re grateful to your brain for keeping you alive.


Our culture gives us a lot of ways to describe what it feels like when your brain chooses the “Go!” stress responses. When your brain chooses fight, you may feel irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry, irate, or enraged. When it chooses flight, we have words to describe that feeling: unsure, worried, anxious, scared, frightened, or terrified. But what are the words that describe the emotion of “freeze”? Words that might feel right: Shut down. Numb. Immobilized. Disconnected. Petrified. The very word sympathetic means “with emotion,” while parasympathetic—the system that controls freeze—means “beyond emotion.” You may feel disengaged from the world, sluggish, like you don’t care or nothing matters. You feel…outside.

      If we don’t have a good word to describe the experience of freeze, we really don’t have a good word to describe what comes next:

After a gazelle freezes in response to a lion attack, the lion, feeling smug, wanders off to get her cubs so they can feed on the gazelle. And that’s when the magic happens: Once the threat is gone, the brake gradually eases off, and the gazelle begins to shake and shudder. All the adrenaline and cortisol built up in her bloodstream get purged through this process, the same way running to safety purges those chemicals.

It happens in all mammals. One woman, when she learned about freeze, told us, “So that’s what happened to a cat I accidentally hit with my car—she was just lying there and I was terrified she was dead; I felt terrible. Then she started twitching and shaking and I thought she was having a seizure, until it was like she woke up…and then ran away.”

It happens to humans, too. People have told us, “That happened to my friend, when she was coming out from under anesthesia after surgery.”

And, “My kid went through that in the emergency room.”