I began the new year with a goal very different from what I had done in previous years – to do less. What that meant in real life was not to laze around all year but to deliberately choose the things I wanted to do instead of getting sucked into a competitive marketplace of self-development like I normally do.
Having suffered from what I suspect was extreme burnout at the end of 2021, I sought recommendations for books on the subject. One book that came up repeatedly was “Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
Of stress, stressors and the vicious stress cycle
I first listened to the audiobook before seeking out the print version to delve deep into this topic that held the secret to explaining not just the excruciating pain that had immobilised me for weeks in the last quarter of 2021 but was also of direct relevance to the restructuring of my life in 2022.
Whether or not you have encountered burnout in your life, I would highly recommend this book.
If you are too tired to read the whole thing, here are five things that you should know and remember:
1. The definition of ‘burnout’ was first coined by Herbert Freudenbergerger in 1975 and has three components:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Decreased sense of accomplishment
2. Emotions are tunnels: Emotions are not just cascades of neurochemicals in the brain following a stimulus but they are ‘tunnels’. While we all experience emotions all day, the exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.
3. Human Giver Syndrome: Women typically fall into the class of people known as “Human Givers” as opposed to “Human Beings”. The latter have a moral obligation to just ‘be’ while the former have a moral obligation to give their humanity to the ‘beings’. It’s no surprise that women happen to fall in this ‘giver’ and are therefore more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion
4. There is a difference between ‘stress’ – the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter a threat and ‘stressor’ – the thing that activates the stress response in your body. Quite often we confuse the two. We believe that once the stressor (the exam, the deadline) is removed, the stress is relieved. This is not true.
5. Fight or flight or freeze are the three common stress responses. However, there are several ways to complete the stress response cycle. These include – physical activity, breathing (yes), positive social interaction, laughter, affection, crying and creative expression. Once the stress response cycle is completed we can get back to a comfortable baseline instead of accumulating mountains of stress on top of previous ones where the stressor has been eliminated but the response remains incomplete.
What I liked about the book
The book is written in a science-lite format (with appropriate caveats, of course) and was read in a breezy yet engaging style by the authors who happen to be twin sisters! With lots of references to contemporary life and with the help of two made-up but believable composite characters, they manage to explain difficult concepts through stories. While they shared aspects of their own life, they also provided the right context for every point they make.
Every chapter ends with a TL:DR (too long didn’t read) reference that encapsulates the main takeaways in easy to swallow format, something the time-strapped reader will greatly appreciate. The final point they make is the most important one.
Burnout doesn’t help anyone – neither the ones who suffer from it nor their families nor society as a whole. For women, it is not easy to prioritize their wellbeing while trying to do their best by everyone else. Self-care can’t happen if we don’t take care of each other. Together we can handle the scepter of burnout by identifying the stressors in our life and consciously taking the necessary steps to complete the stress cycle.
My opinion: The book should be mandatory reading for women of all ages and is one that should be read at the beginning of another manic year.
When fiction reflects life
To break away from the serious books that seemed to have caught my attention, I decided to head towards a light fictional read – “There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job” by Kikuko Tsumura. This intriguing Japanese novel, translated into English by Polly Barton, and superbly narrated in the audiobook format by Cindy Kay was a fun read.
On the surface, the story is a simple one. An unnamed 36-year-old woman deliberately seeks out and goes through a series of seemingly low-key, uninteresting jobs. Yet, in each job she finds herself in unexpected situations. Seemingly odd things happen, either at work, or with a coworker or sometimes both. From a boring job of watching surveillance footage to one involving writing audio advertisements for local businesses, from sticking posters in a residential neighborhood to coming up with trivia information to be printed on packets of rice crackers, the protagonist keeps running into adventures that take the edge off the monotony that she so desires.
The audiobook narration matched the tone of the writing yet kept me glued to my earphones wanting to know what would happen next. I was wholly unprepared for the connection with burnout that turned out to be a central theme of the novel but one that I didn’t connect until the very last chapter where the protagonist works alone in a hut in a forest.
Fiction has a way of subtly driving home a message that non-fiction is sometimes unable to accomplish even with a big hammer. This is one such novel that would appeal to millennials and employees of all ages in all countries, who wonder where their life is going when the all-pervasive nature of work begins to affect their physical and mental wellbeing.
I have always believed that books come to me when I need them. I must say that 2022 has already overachieved on this goal by bringing these two very different books to my attention. Each of them has made me think deeply about my own approach to my work and life and how the two should intersect.