Amelia Nagoski Talks Burnout, Stress


Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Daniel Greenman, News Editor

On 5PM-7PM, Wednesday, April 6, the O’Brien Center, sponsored by the Office of Title IX, the Eppler-Wolff Counseling Center and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, hosted a live Zoom talk with author Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A.. Nagoski, with her twin sister Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., authored the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” in March 2019, about the effects of stress and burnout with a focus on women. The goal of event was described as helping Union community members to “learn more about what causes burnout”, and helping them “receive useful information about tools and resources to prevent and tackle burnout.” In describing burnout, Nagoski’s book references Herbert Freudenberger’s 1975 definition, which consisted of three parts: “emotional exhaustion”, a “fatigue” from “caring too much, for too long”; “depersonalization” or “depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion”; and lastly, “decreased sense of accomplishment”, marked by an “unconquerable sense of futility” and “feeling that nothing you do makes any difference”.

In her talk, moderated by Title IX Coordinator Mary Simeoli, Nagoski recommended many methods for countering and processing stress, which she described as often arising from one’s body dealing with uncomfortable or frightening situations via a fight-or-flight response. She discussed the 42-percent rule from her book, named for the percentage of time someone is supposed to spend in a state of rest, including both adequate relaxation and sleep. “If you change nothing else but adequate sleep, it’s your first doorway to feeling better”, she said. Nagoski also touted the benefits of massage, and specifically of targeting chronically tight muscles. She noted that muscles store the body’s physical response to stress, and can build up a tension that massage helps some people to release. “For those it works for, it really works”, she said. She also recommended therapy dogs, such as those who work at the Wicker Wellness Center.

Nagoski also discussed the roles of social relationships in reducing stress and promoting feelings of security and fulfillment. In discussing scientific support behind certain strategies, she raised the benefits of a 20-second hug, which is a “way to move the body from feelings of danger to safety.” “You don’t have to count the time, but it’s too long to be just a polite, ‘hey, how are you doing?’ kind of hug”, she said. She also discussed the stress-reducing benefits of laughter, clarifying that instead of the “polite social cocktail party” type of laughter, the type that can result in “abdominal muscles aching” can help someone nearing or experiencing burnout, as well as provide stress-relieving memories in the future.

Nagoski also spoke on the positive effects of creative self-expression for someone feeling stressed or near burnout. She described the process as “starting with nothing or a skeleton [of an idea] and taking thoughts, feelings, and intuition and putting it on a page.” Specifically she pointed to forms of expression such as sand art, journaling, or coloring. Herself a musician, Nagoski also said that she knows “hundreds of people who got into music beause they had fun doing it as kids.” Music, she said, can help “with connection to a loving, divine presence of an inner child”, promoting feelings of catharsis. Regarding her recommendations for creative self-expression, Nagoski said “it means you don’t have to wait for the semester to be over before you start to feel better” and that it lets “other people in your life[…] experience you at your best.”

Nagoski then elaborated on the benefits of creative expression by performing a song for the audeince with her guitar. The song, written by Nagoski, reflected her own stressful experiences with online meetings. It opened with the following lyrics, which in an earlier version did not substitute its expletives: ““Is it plugged in, did I turn it on? / Why won’t it forking work? / Are the cables old, is the connection loose? / Why won’t it fishing work? / So annoyed, so annoyed. Why won’t it flapping work?”

The Q-&-A segment afterwards began with a question on how one can know whether they are at or near burnout. Nagoski said that “if you think you are you are. It has no clinical definition. It’s a condition generally realted to work but could be anything that gives you unmeetable goals and unceasable demands.” She stated that a state of burnout can come from a wide variety of sources, commonly including work, school, family relationships, financial or economic pressures, or arbitrary and socially-constructed beauty standards. She recommended that someone experiencing burnout not simply try to “do more” of the same type of effort, as “dealing with stressors is a different issue than the stressors themselves.” She pointed to using kindness, compassion and curiosity as well as considering what might ease the cycle of stress and burnout. Once the feelings of burnout start to ease, said Nagoski, one can plan what to do next. Citing chapters in her book, Nagoski added that an individual should find out what particular methods work best for themselves.

Nagoski also spoke on overarching societal issues and pressures as sources of stress and burnout, citing an “artificial sense of scarcity and competition” in many workplaces and similar environments. She continued that lots of individual experiences of burnout result in part or whole from larger causes such as “white supremacist patriarchy or microagressions in media”. She also pointed to corporations or businesses failing to account for underlying pressures on people or employees, regarding adequate wages, parental leave, and health care issues. In general, she said, men, and white men in particular, have easiest access to helpful institutions related to these stressors. She also pointed to unionization in the workplace as a way to counter stress, referencing her personal experience working at a private university that prevented faculty from unionizing. She also recalled and her positive experiences with unionization in her time as a public school teacher.

After the talk concluded, the Combating Burnout Wellness Fair was held one floor below, and featured massage therapists, therapy dogs, arts and crafts and refreshments.

For further reading, Nagoski recommended Bessel van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma” and Kate Manne’s “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny”.