Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

by Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski

The Burnout explains why women experience burnout differently than men and offers a simple, science-based plan to help women reduce stress, manage emotions, and live a more joyful life. It focuses on ending the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Instead of asking us to ignore the real obstacles and societal pressures that stand between women and well-being, it explains with compassion and optimism what we’re up against—and shows us how to fight back. 

Summary Notes

Complete The Cycle

“Dealing with your stress is a separate process from dealing with the things that cause your stress.”

Stressors and stress are two different things. 

Stressors activate the stress response in your body. They can be anything you can see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine that could harm you. External stressors include work, money, family, time, cultural norms, and expectations. Internal stressors include self-criticism, body image, identity, and memories. 

Stress is the neurological and physiological shift in your body when encountering one of these stressors. 

Suppose you are running away from a lion. You run back to your village and shout for help. Everyone comes out and helps you. You’re grateful to be alive! The sun seems to shine more brightly as you relax, knowing that your body is now a safe place to be. The village cooks the lion and shares a feast. You take a deep, soothing breath and thank the lion for its sacrifice. The stress response cycle completes, and we all live happily ever after. 

But what if it gets struck by lightning while running away from the lion? You see the dead lion, but are you immediately calm and relaxed? You stop, bewildered and tense. Even if an act of God removed the threat, you still need to reassure your body. Simply removing the stressor does not complete the stress response cycle. So you might run back to your village, tell your tribe what happened, and you all jump up and down and thank God for the lightning bolt.

Completing the stress cycle means letting our bodies know we are no longer in danger and we can stop being stressed. 

People experience stress most days, so they should complete the stress response cycle most days, too. Even standing up from a chair or taking a deep breath is an excellent start. Your body does not know what “filing your taxes” or “resolving an issue through rational problem-solving” means. It knows what jumping up and down and going around means.

Actions to take


“It’s about knowing how to persist when you’re past the edge of your capabilities, and it’s about knowing when to quit.”

The brain mechanism that decides whether to keep trying or give up is the monitor. 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.

Suppose you’re driving to the mall. It usually takes 20 minutes. You’re getting all green lights and no heavy traffic. You’re making progress more quickly and easily than your monitor expects, and that feels great—less effort, more progress: satisfied monitor. 

If you get stuck at a traffic light, you feel a little annoyed and frustrated. With each stop, your frustration burns a little hotter. It’s already been twenty minutes, and you’re only halfway to the mall. High investment, little progress: raged monitor. 

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,” 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.

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 managing both the controllable and the uncontrollable stressors.

Actions to take


“Meaning is a power you carry inside yourself that helps you resist and recover from burnout.”

Meaning is the nourishing experience of feeling like we’re connected to something larger than ourselves. It helps us thrive when things go well and cope when things go wrong. Meaning is what keeps us going, no matter what we find in the end. Meaning is not found; it is made. To make meaning, you need to engage with something larger than yourself. 

This “something larger” can be a pursuit and achievement of ambitious goals that leave a legacy, service to the divine or other spiritual calling, or loving, emotionally intimate connection with others. Its mere existence is not enough. You have to engage with it actively.

Human Giver Syndrome is a set of personal and cultural beliefs and behaviors stressing that some people’s only “meaning in life” comes from being pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. It makes you prioritize other people’s needs over your own. Engaging with ‘something larger’ and creating meaning in your life heals Human Giver Syndrome, both in yourself and others.

Actions to take

The Game Is Rigged

“The enemy is the game itself, which tries to convince us it’s not the enemy.”

When we are stressed, our priority is to complete our cycle, manage our monitor, and engage with ‘something larger.’ But at some point, we need to go back and figure out the reason for our stress to prevent it from happening again. 

If you’re a woman in the industrialized West, you’ll confront a particular set of enemies that will try to cut you down to size while claiming it’s for your own good. Because we’ve been confronting these enemies literally since birth, we often believe them. 

Patriarchy is a system of government in which men wield power and authority over women—being raised as a boy makes it easier to grow up and take on positions of power and authority, which is what ‘patriarchy’ means.

Women experience stress differently than men. One of the stressors women experience is being told that they are not experiencing different stress than men. The patriarchy of the modern West says it no longer exists.

Gaslighting is the practice of repeatedly telling women and other marginalized groups that they do not exist. This happens when others tell you you just imagine discrimination. When someone is doing it to you, and you start overreacting–thinking maybe they are right, it is the feeling of being gaslit. 

Gaslighting creates deeply uncomfortable feelings of being trapped while making you believe you put yourself in that trap, making you feel helpless and miserable. 

The first step to stop feeling this way is knowing the game is rigged—seeing how the rules are set up to treat some people unequally and blind us to the unfairness of the rules.

Actions to take

The Bikini Industrial Complex

“We are not saying beautiful is what your body should be; we’re saying beautiful is what your body already is.”

Every culture has an “aspirational beauty ideal” that women are encouraged to strive for. As a result, women are even willing to risk their health to achieve unrealistic beauty standards. 

The Bikini Industrial Complex is the name for the hundred-billion-dollar cluster of businesses that profit by setting an unachievable beauty standard for us, convincing us we both can and should conform to the ideal body, and then selling us ineffective but plausible strategies for achieving that ideal.

Those body ideals are unrealistic because body mass index is used to assess someone’s health despite its limitations. Weight-loss clinics created the BMI Chart to encourage women to buy their weight-loss facilities.

A study conducted by The Lancet found people labeled obese by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have lower health risks than those the CDC categorized as underweight. The BMI chart labels people as “unhealthy,” ignores the science, and gives physicians and businesses to collect fees for treatment of this disease.

Because of The Bikini Industrial Complex, women struggle with fatigue, chronic stress, depression, body dysmorphia, anxiety, and mental exhaustion.

Actions to take

What Makes You Stronger

“Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Rest is when you stop using a tired portion of yourself to allow it to renew itself. It includes switching from one type of activity to another. Humans are designed to oscillate between work and rest. When we allow for this oscillation, the quality of our work improves, along with our health. 

One study asked a group of research participants to write their thoughts. This was effortful enough to deplete some mental energy. Half the participants were instructed to relax as much as they could between tasks, while the other half were given no instructions and just sat there waiting for the next task. 

The group that relaxed persisted twice as long at the next depleting task as the group that waited. This research showed that we do our best at any task for only a limited amount of time, energy, or attention. Then our performance drops off, our attention wanders, and our motivation evaporates. But resting after an activity eliminates the effects of fatigue.

Actions to take

Grow Mighty

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Imagine walking into a room and hearing your best friend in conversation with a stranger. The stranger is saying, “Shut up. Nobody cares. You’re not even worth listening to.” Or, “You're fat and ugly”. How would it feel to hear this mean stranger say those things to your best friend? Would you ever say these things in this way to your best friend? Of course not. 

So, why do we say such things to ourselves? You deserve respect, love, and kindness. The person who says these things to us is the ‘mad woman’ inside us. Each person’s madwoman is different. She may be a constant reminder of what you are not or a creature reminding you you are unworthy of anything. Some madwomen are protective rather than destructive. Some are more sad than angry. They are the hurt little girl, the downtrodden teenager, or the “perfect” version of ourselves.

If you have beaten yourself up for needing to say no to a friend, that was the madwoman. If you have felt sure that a broken relationship was all your fault and that you could have done more, that was the madwoman. If you have struggled when you look in a mirror, it’s the madwoman you see looking back at you.

This madwoman provides you with harsh self-criticism and toxic perfectionism. She has a goal of “perfection,” which is unattainable. When you start a project that isn’t perfect, the whole thing is ruined. You start to feel hopeless–thinking that you cannot achieve your goal.

The opposite of harsh self-criticism and toxic perfectionism is self-compassion. The absence of self-compassion is harmful, as it results in self-judgment, isolation, and overidentification with our suffering. Self-compassion reduces depression, anxiety, and disordered eating. It improves overall life satisfaction. When you are gentle to yourself, you grow mighty.

Actions to take

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