Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

“Stress can do that?”

“Heck yes,” Amelia said. “So my sister visited me in the hospital. She brought me a book about inflammation.”

“Your sister gave you a book while you were in the hospital?”

“And a balloon that sang ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy,’ which also helped,” Amelia said. “But this book explained how health conditions like repeated infections, chronic pain, and asthma—all of which I had—are exacerbated or even caused by stress. By unprocessed emotion. I got home and read this book, and I just started crying, even though I was thinking, That’s nonsense. It sounded like hippy-dippy bullshit. But, dude, I was in so much pain all the time, and it was getting worse as I got older. So I called Emily sobbing, like, ‘This book says emotions exist in the body. Is that true?’?”

“Okay, wow,” Julie said. “Even I knew that.”

“That’s what I’m saying. If I can learn to deal with the stress itself, learn to complete the cycle, you can, too. Anyone can.

“Anyway, I asked Emily what I was supposed to do with all this emotion and pain and crap in my body, and she drove an hour and a half to my house, to bring me a book of relaxation meditations.”

“Because of course Emily would give you a book,” Julie said.

      “Exactly. So I started using these meditations on the treadmill and elliptical machine, paying attention to physical sensations and recognizing for the first time that certain stray thoughts corresponded with specific bodily discomforts. It was wild. It was mind-blowing. And it worked. I’m healthier—and saner and happier—than I was in my twenties, because I realized my emotions and my thoughts and my body are all connected to one another. Now I’m the one who nags her to exercise and cry and write fiction when she needs to.”

“Because those are the ways she completes the cycle,” Julie observed. “Okay.” She twisted her wineglass between her fingers, thinking.

Julie made a plan. She started the school year with two new strategies: She would begin sifting controllable stressors from uncontrollable stressors, and she would practice completing the cycle. She set aside half an hour a day, six days a week, for exercise or pure play with her daughter, Diana.

It helped…but a few months later she hit a serious obstacle. And that’s the subject of the next chapter.

The good news is that stress is not the problem. The problem is that the strategies that deal with stressors have almost no relationship to the strategies that deal with the physiological reactions our bodies have to those stressors. To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you. Wellness happens when your body is a place of safety for you, even when your body is not necessarily in a safe place. You can be well, even during the times when you don’t feel good.

* * *

     Here’s the ultimate moral of the story:

     Wellness is not a state of being, but a state of action.

Our job in this chapter has been to teach you how to deal with the stress so that you can be well enough to face another day of stressors.

But of course, that still leaves you with a life full of goals, obstacles, unmet obligations, not-yet-fulfilled hopes, and other sources of stress, both big and small, both enjoyable and painful.

So let’s talk about those goals, and the brain mechanism that keeps track of them.


? Just because you’ve dealt with a stressor, that doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself. And you have to deal with the stress—“complete the cycle”—or it will slowly kill you.

? Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the cycle—even if it’s just jumping up and down or a good old cry.

? Affection—a six-second kiss, a twenty-second hug, six minutes of snuggling after sex, helpless laughter—are social strategies that complete the cycle, along with creative self-expression—writing, drawing, singing, whatever gives you a safe place to move through the emotional cycle of stress.

? “Wellness”is the freedom to move fluidly through the cycles of being human. Wellness is thus not a state of being; it is a state of action.



    Sophie, the non-exerciser, is an engineer, but she’s also a black woman, so she rarely gets to be just an engineer. She has to be an engineer and a social justice educator, teaching the oblivious white guys who surround her about the experience of being a woman of color in science and technology—not because she wants to; all she ever wanted to do is science. But since she is so often the only person of color and the only woman in the room, they all look to her to explain, ya know, why she’s the only person of color or woman in the room.

One day as we were sitting around a table at an end-of-semester breakfast with her and a bunch of other women, Sophie told us a story about the ways she was being taken for granted on a “diversity” committee she’d been assigned to.

     “Is it…racism?” Emily said hesitantly, a white lady afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. “Is it because you’re a woman?”

“It’s just the usual nonsense,” Sophie said. “I’m used to all that.”

Amelia, not hesitant, said, “What is wrong with them? Isn’t it obvious that putting people of color in charge of helping white people learn how not to be racist is just more white supremacy? White people are the ones with the problem; we should be doing the work, not putting more labor demands on black and brown people.”

Sophie grinned at her omelet and said, “Actually…I’ve been thinking, if they’re going to ask me to do all this, I can turn it into a way to get paid. Codify a package of talks and workshops. Take the Sophie Show on the road. I get requests all the time.”

“Can we talk about the science of how smart that idea is?” Emily said, excited and impressed. “There’s so much research about how to turn our frustrations into assets.”

“Can we talk about the science?” Sophie echoed. “Let’s always talk about the science!”

This chapter is that science.

* * *

Chapter 1 was about dealing with the stress itself. Chapter 2 is about managing the stressors. It’s about knowing how to persist when you’re past the edge of your capabilities, and it’s about knowing when to quit. Specifically, it’s about what we call “the Monitor,” the brain mechanism that manages the gap between where we are and where we are going. Exactly what this looks like is different for everyone, but it impacts every domain of life, from parenthood to career success to friendships to body image. And for women, the gap quickly becomes a chasm.

    In this chapter, we’ll explain how the Monitor works, and why it sometimes breaks down. Then we’ll talk about how to implement evidence-based strategies for every frustration and every failure, from traffic jams to tenure.

Allow Us to Introduce…the Monitor

Technically, it’s called the “discrepancy-reducing/-increasing feedback loop” and “criterion velocity,” but people fall asleep immediately when we say that, so we just call it the Monitor. It is the brain mechanism that decides whether to keep trying…or to give up.

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