On this episode
Exhausted. Stressed. Anxious. Berating yourself for “not doing enough.” These are all signs of burnout—and too many women are intimately familiar with them. For years, we’ve known burnout affects women more than men, and now COVID-19 has made it even worse. On this episode, we talk with two experts on burnout: Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global, and Emily Nagoski, author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Arianna and Emily tell personal stories about burnout, teach us how to recognize it, and share tips for preventing and addressing it in our own lives.
A few things you’ll learn:
- Burnout is more than just stress—it’s cumulative stress that leads to exhaustion, pessimism, and anxiety, and that can eventually cause long-term health problems.
- It’s helpful to identify and differentiate between the stress and the stressors. Stressors (such as relationships, financials, and work performance) are what cause your body’s stress response cycle.
- There are many things you can do to complete a stress response cycle—exercise, sleep, and connecting with others or with nature are good places to start.
More about our guests:
Whether you’re listening to this episode with friends or your Circle, these questions are designed to help you discuss personal stories, connect over common challenges, and unpack the topic together.
- “Burnout is the feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, while still worrying that you are not doing enough.” Does Emily Nagoski’s definition of burnout resonate with you?
- Have you experienced burnout? Looking back, what do you think contributed to your burnout, and what would have helped?
- Asking for help can be difficult. Reflecting on your past experiences as well as what you learned from our guests, what do you think is an effective way for you to ask for help?
Rachel Thomas (00:01):
Welcome to Tilted: A Lean In Podcast. Tilted brings you conversations at the intersection of gender and culture. We dig into topics we’re curious about, highlight people and stories that inspire us and we hope inspire you too, and share expert advice to help you make the playing field a little less tilted. I’m your host Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In.
[00:00:30] A few months ago, Lean In surveyed thousands of people about their experiences during COVID-19. We found that women are shouldering a heavier workload and showing more signs of burnout than men. They’re twice as likely to have symptoms of severe anxiety and far more likely to say that they have more to do than they can handle. Burnout is not a new phenomenon. Research shows it’s been on the rise across all genders for a while, but now it has a new sense of urgency, especially for women.
[00:01:00] So for today’s episode, we’re going to dig into it: how to recognize burnout and what to do if you’re starting to feel it. My two guests are both experts who’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and they both have personal experiences with burnout. First, I spoke with writer and businesswoman Arianna Huffington. You probably know her as the founder of The Huffington Post and Thrive Global. She’s also the author of more than a dozen books including Thrive and The Sleep Revolution, which tackle the issue of burnout head on.
So what is burnout? We talk about it a lot, but what exactly is it? When you say burnout, what do you mean?
Arianna Huffington (01:32) :
What is so interesting is that for the first time, the World Health Organization acknowledged burnout as a real syndrome related to workplace and stress.
Rachel Thomas (01:42):
That’s validating for you. You’ve been talking about this a long time, yeah.
Arianna Huffington (01:44):
Yes, because I’ve been talking about it for years and as you say, it can seem vague. But it’s actually very, very specific and they give symptoms that we should be looking at.
Rachel Thomas (01:52):
Okay, everybody, get your pen out. Walk us through some of them.
Arianna Huffington (01:55):
Including beginning to feel more negative about your work, more cynical, more anxious, less engaged. All these things are early warning signs, even before you move to the actual symptoms like depression, anxiety, health problems. Because stress is an unavoidable part of life. The problem with burnout is that it’s not just stress. It’s cumulative stress that begins to effect inflammation in the body, which is at the heart of every disease, diseases like diabetes and heart disease, blood pressure.
Rachel Thomas (02:36):
If someone was listening, regardless of their gender, they ticked off that they’re feeling those things. They’re feeling less motivated, less engaged, more negative.
What do they do?
Arianna Huffington (02:51):
We believe in what we call microsteps too small to fail. They’re all very science backed. And if you take the example you gave me, of somebody who is beginning to feel these early warning signs, I would ask them to look at all the different microsteps and pick one or two to start with. If they want to start with sleep, I would pick a microstep which happens to be my favorite, picking a time at the end of your day that you declare the end of your working day. Truth is, there is no end—
I could use that.
I’m not burned out, I’m fortunate to say. I could use that. It’s such a good idea.
Arianna Huffington (03:29):
Yeah, because the truth is that there is no end to our working day. For the human operating system, down time is essential. Whatever the time is... We start small. It doesn’t matter, but there has to be a time where you clearly say, “This is the end of my working day.” And because human beings like rituals, you declare the end of your working day by taking your phone and charging it outside your room.
Rachel Thomas (03:57):
Okay, I don’t do that part. I don’t make a ritual of it, but we have a charging station in our kitchen area on purpose so that you got to take the phone and put it out of the bedroom. I’m feeling good—
And do you do that?
I wish I did it every night.
But you do it. Amazing.
I’m feeling more inspired, but we try to do it.
So you do it a few nights a week.
Do it a few nights a week.
That’s a great microstep. We tell people: start with one night a week.
Rachel Thomas (04:20):
You mention sleep, which we all know is an area you’re really passionate about, so we can talk about that in a second. You mentioned declaring the end of your day, which I think is such a good idea because I fall into the trap I wake up at the morning and say, “I’ve got so much to do” I go to bed saying, “I’ve got so much to do.” This deliberateness, I really like. What are some of the other microsteps that people can take?
Arianna Huffington (04:42):
I try as much as possible to focus on gratitude. Gratitude is the antidote to stress. It’s the antidote to anxiety. The default position for us as human beings for evolutionary reasons, when we’re not actively engaging our brain is negative, to have negative thoughts, to worry about the future or ruminate about the past. Again—
Rachel Thomas (05:07):
I’m just sitting with that for a second. Really, the natural state is negative? That’s so interesting.
Yes, it’s a natural thing because just think of it. As we evolved as a species, if you are focusing on the sunset rather than tiger following you—
Somebody’s going to eat you. Or not someone, something.
Arianna Huffington (05:26):
... we would not be here. But now, we are not being pursued by a tiger but our brain still imagines the worst. Imagined scenario are just as bad as real, in terms of how our body is perceiving them and releasing the cortisol hormone to deal with them. Let’s start with a thought we hold in our head. My favorite microstep here is how you start your day. We talked about how you end your day. Starting your day is equally important and most of us now, actually 72% of us, start the day by going to their phone. Our microstep is take one minute, 60 seconds, before you go to your phone, to set your intention for the day, to remember what you’re grateful for. And that’s a microstep. It’s not complicated, and it takes one minute.
[00:06:30] We recommend, for people who don’t have a minute, the concept of habit stacking, which, again, neuroscience tells us is one of the fastest and easiest ways to adopt new habits... You’re brushing your teeth morning and night, I hope. While you’re brushing your teeth, remember three things you’re grateful for. You are washing your hair. While you are washing your hair, say a positive affirmation. We have hundreds of them. Just say, “I’m strong. I’m brilliant. I’ll have an amazing day.” Whatever. It doesn’t matter how hokey it is.
[00:07:00] It’s something that gets you into that confident spirit and these things work. I want to stress that, Rachel, that our goal here is to redefine the wellness category to be science-based and data-based. We don’t want to be warm and fuzzy.
Rachel Thomas (07:19):
Saying an affirmation in the shower may sound warm and fuzzy. It has an amazing amount of science behind it because the brain has now been discovered to have enormous neuroplasticity, and you can start new pathways in your brain by thinking new thoughts, which is an incredibly optimistic—
Rachel Thomas (07:42):
It’s a really powerful idea.
I read an article that you recently wrote, and you said something that really resonated with me but it’s a pretty bold statement. You said that in order to close the gender gap at work, we need to get rid of our burnout culture. What does that mean?
Arianna Huffington (07:57):
So, you know how long we’ve been trying to close the gender gap—
... and you’ve done so much work at Lean In to help women, companies, cultures globally close the gender gap, but we’re still not where we want to be. I believe the reason is that most corporate cultures are fueled by burnout and women pay a disproportionately high price in those cultures, and we have the data to show it. Women in stressful jobs have a 40% greater risk of heart disease and 60% greater risk of diabetes.
Rachel Thomas (08:37):
One of the reasons is that women internalize stress differently. We are more perfectionist and we take things more personally. I mean, we are working to change that and that’s a whole other journey but in the meantime, it means that stress and burnout have a disproportionate impact on us.
[00:09:00] Also, despite everything we have said, and despite the very well-publicized cases of stay at home dads or fathers who really equally share the load, women still carry the mind load of bringing up children. I think this concept of mind load is very important, that even when the father picks up the kids from school, it’s the working mother who has to remind them.
[00:09:30] If we look at all the data and if we also look anecdotally at what women are saying, this doesn’t have to be so if the culture is not expecting being always on or rewarding people who are willing to burn out for the sake of success, especially since all the data shows that burnout undermines success. It doesn’t make it more likely.
Rachel Thomas (09:58):
What do organizations need to do? Because this is obviously bigger than any one of us. Organizations obviously need to step up and make changes.
Arianna Huffington (10:05):
The first thing is a mind shift and understanding that the well-being of employees and the well-being of the company are connected, that well-being is not just a nice to have HR benefit. It’s not free snacks and a ping pong table. It’s really about the recognition by everyone in the company that when you take care of yourself, you’re going to be a much more productive and effective employee. Once that’s accepted and promulgated and modeled from the top down, then you can introduce specific steps.
[00:11:00] One of the things we highly recommend to companies is to introduce the concept of thrive time, which means... Let’s say you worked over the weekend to ship a product or complete a big project for a client. Take thrive time to recharge before you return to work. You’ll find, Rachel, that in fact, fewer people get sick because that’s the time that people get most sick because their immune system is suppressed, and then who benefits? But even if they don’t get sick, they can’t possibly be as productive if they are running on empty. That’s one concept that we feel very strongly about.
Rachel Thomas (11:28):
How much thrive time do you get? Is it based on the individual? Is there something kind of formulaic that organizations can do?
Arianna Huffington (11:35):
What we find is that when you trust the employee... And that relationship based on trust is so key. You say, “Do you need a day? Do you need more? What do you need?”
I love thrive time. Are there recommendations for what organizations need to be doing?
Arianna Huffington (11:49):
Yes. Another one is that we are big believers in the entry interview. Everybody has exit interviews, but I think in a company and as you are building teams, if the manager has an entry interview... And the first question we recommend is, “what’s important to you outside of work? How can we support you?” It does two things. First of all, the employee feels recognized as a full human being, not just as somebody to deliver on whatever they were hired for. And the other is that it helps build the team because if I know what’s important to you, Rachel, and you know what’s important to me, it’s a real bond.
[00:12:30] We have here a Chief Content Officer who said that what’s important to her is to be able to go to her therapy appointment every Tuesday at 7:00, and she had not been able to do it in her last job. So what we recommend is to find an accountability buddy in the company, ideally on your team. She did. She found our editorial director. Every Tuesday, the accountability buddy takes her bags, puts them by the elevator at 6:00 and is like a support system to make her appointment. But it has an incredible team-building impact as well.
[00:13:30] Just one more thing to mention is that our number one cultural value is what we call compassionate directness. We find that a lot of cultures become toxic when people don’t express themselves. Because if you don’t express, and you just sit on something... Resentment, disagreement, whatever... it festers and it affects the culture. It makes a culture very corrosive. We empower people to express, to disagree, and then, of course, at some point, we’re not a debating society. It’s like disagree and commit.
[00:14:00] But the concept of directness is key. And you see in so many of the companies where the culture imploded... I mean, whether it’s Boeing, most recently, or WeWork or Uber that was on the border for three years, you wonder why didn’t people speak up? If you look at the emails that went back and forth at Boeing, I mean, people knew there were problems here. That reluctance to speak up is a failure of the culture, a failure to empower everybody who works there to speak up.
Rachel Thomas (14:33):
It really resonates. I am a full believer in what you’re doing at Thrive and kind of your vision of how work needs to shift. But if I’m not, if I’m a little bit of a naysayer, what are your kind of hardest hitting facts or pieces of evidence that getting this right and focusing on well-being, focusing on squashing burnout, is good for your business?
Arianna Huffington (14:57):
The biggest teachable moments actually have been exactly this destruction of shareholder value by major companies because—
This is such a good point.
Arianna Huffington (15:10):
Boeing, Uber, Away (a small luggage company). It’s always the same and you see, you scratch the surface and there are exhausted employees making bad decisions and the failure of culture and the prioritizing of what I call “brilliant jerks,” people who are delivering, but their behavior is undermining the culture.
I think we’re at this great inflection point, Rachel, for it is recognized that culture is not just a nice box to check—
Yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
[00:16:00] ... that it absolutely, dramatically affects the bottom line. I think that’s why all the emphasis on inclusiveness and gender equality is also a huge part of culture and it’s essential. In fact, you can’t have a thriving culture if you don’t have inclusivity.
Rachel Thomas (16:07):
Well, absolutely, because inclusivity is ultimately about belonging and feeling like you can bring your whole self to work and be your best self at work.
And let’s get to true inclusivity and belonging, and now let’s get to zero burnout.
Arianna Huffington (16:20):
Yes, and they’re all connected. We’re never going to get to zero stress.
[00:16:30] That’s totally fine. I mean, there is stress in all our jobs. But the problem is cumulative stress that becomes burnout. And when we recognize that eliminating the epidemic of burnout, which is global, is going to make it dramatically easier to accelerate inclusivity and belonging, I think there’ll be more incentives to do that. What you said about belonging is key because, again, the data shows that when we are burned out, we become the worst version of ourselves.
[00:17:00] I know from myself. Listen, I didn’t see the light until 2007, so I spent most of my life burned out and I know that when I’m burned out, I’m less empathetic, I’m definitely less creative, I’m more reactive like something bad that happens... And every day includes a mixture of good and bad things...
[00:17:30] It hits me more. I overreact. Under those circumstances, I’m not going to be as likely to be empathetic and inclusive and stretch myself. Imagine if I was a lot younger than I am and had thought a lot less about these things. This would be even truer.
Rachel Thomas (17:48):
You touched on this a little bit, but would you mind quickly telling your story? Because you hit a burnout wall—
… and it was really a come to Jesus for you and is actually why you’re sitting here today doing the work you do.
Arianna Huffington (18:01):
Yes. It was two years into building The Huffington Post. I was the divorced mother of two daughters, and I literally had bought into the collective delusion that I was going to be super mom and super founder, and to hell with my sleep and recharging, etcetera. You know, the whole hero mentality that especially so many working mothers have. Anyway, one morning, I ended up literally collapsing, hitting my head on my desk, breaking my cheekbone.
[00:18:30] But frankly, Rachel, that’s the best thing that would have happened to me. I would probably be dead. I took it very seriously because I’m a bit of a research nerd. I researched and discovered this was not just my problem. As a Belgian philosopher called it, “burnout is our civilization’s disease.” I started making changes in my life. I started covering all these issues at The Huffington Post. We launched the first dedicated sleep section in 2007, which was really early.
[00:19:00] And then, in 2016, I decided that I didn’t just want to raise awareness through The Huffington Post. I wanted to help people change. I want to help people move from awareness to action, from knowing what to do to doing it. I built Thrive to help people get there. We only do it through companies.
[00:19:30] We don’t have a consumer-facing product because we believe that going through companies is a faster way to achieve results because you have a community. Bringing these microsteps and the science and the storytelling within a community makes it easier to get adoption.
[00:20:00] The one thing that actually makes me very optimistic, that we’re going to be able to address all these problems, is my philosophical belief that I wrote about in Thrive, that every human being has a place of peace, wisdom, and strength in them. Anybody listening needs to recognize that. It’s at the heart of every spiritual tradition, absolutely completely aligned, that we all have that place. Now, I don’t know any human being who lives in that place all the time—
In that... Yes. Right.
Arianna Huffington (20:27):
... but the point is that we have that place and we can return to it again and again and it’s almost like our home base, the place where we can go and recharge in the middle of chaos. The image that I love... I actually have it on my reset guide... is the eye of the hurricane. I always love that image. There are hurricanes in our lives, but there is that eye and it’s kind of amazing to see that where, no matter what’s going on around, it’s like complete and utter peace. We all have that.
For me, part of life is learning to get back to that place, and we need to nurture it. I mean, just think of how much time women especially spend on makeup and skin things and picking clothes and how little time we spend on nurturing that inner part. For me, that’s the greatest, greatest gift and what I learned and what I’m trying to communicate to my daughters, and then you look at what other things that help you get to that place faster.
[00:21:30] Sleep and what you eat and how you move and your mental thoughts are all connected to that.
Rachel Thomas (21:43):
I love that. I’m on the journey, I’d like to admit. I’m already on it.
We are all on the journey.
Rachel Thomas (21:47):
But you inspired me to really stay on it and kind of commit to that journey, so thank you for that.
[00:22:00] I love that Arianna emphasized some small, simple steps individuals and companies can take to help prevent burnout, and I wanted to know what else we could do, so I sat down with bestselling author Emily Nagoski. Emily’s latest book is called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Code. She co-wrote it with her sister Amelia, and there’s a powerful personal story behind it.
Okay, so Emily, jumping in. You and your sister have written a book called Burnout, and I know it ties directly to your personal experiences and hers. Can you tell us what the impetus for the book was?
Emily Nagoski (22:28):
Yeah, it actually started with my first book, Come As You Are, which is a book about the science of women’s sexual well-being, but a strange thing happened when I started traveling and talking about the book. People, especially women, kept coming up to me afterward and saying, “Yeah, all that science of sex is great, but you know what changed everything for me was that one chapter about feelings and stress” and I was surprised so I told Amelia... We’re identical twins. We talk about everything... and she was like, “Yeah. No duh, dummy, because remember that time when learning that stuff saved my life twice?” she said, and I remembered her... Imagine your identical twin crying in a hospital Johnny, been lying there for four days and they can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. So I said, “Okay. Yep, we’re going to write a book about that.”
She was hospitalized because of burnout?
Emily Nagoski (23:17):
Stress, overwhelm, exhaustion. Her body just gave up after years of her fighting really hard.
[00:23:30] She was in grad school at the time, and just took all the other roles that women always have in their lives. The program was pretty explicitly misogynist and she felt gaslit every day. She was constantly just fighting for a place in her program. Women will continue working far past their body’s capacity to cope and eventually, her body was like, “That’s as far as you can go” and it knocked her down.
Oh, gosh. Has she been okay since?
Emily Nagoski (23:52):
Yeah. It took about a year for her to fully come to a different place in her relationship with her body and her emotions which manifest in her body. But that was twelve or fifteen years ago and she’s healthier now than she was in her 20s because she has altered her relationship with her body and her emotions in all of these ways. She used to have chronic knee pain. No more chronic knee pain. Chronic back pain. No more chronic back pain. Asthma. No more asthma.
Rachel Thomas (24:19):
That is so interesting and actually so heartening to hear. I’m sure the experience of writing the book together was really therapeutic for her as well.
Emily Nagoski (24:28):
It was for both of us, actually. The ultimate story, we figured out as we were writing the book, is that the care for burnout cannot be self care. It has to be all of us caring for each other because when you’re burnt out, you don’t have the wherewithal for self care. That’s the whole problem. We need to be there, present for each other.
So it’s what we wrote about, but it turned out also to be the way we wrote it. When either of us would get to a point where we had nothing left and it was showing in the work...
[00:25:00] There’s one particular story where we were working on the book but I was also working on my TED Talk at the same time. I was way past my capacity to cope and it was making me not great to be around, sort of a jerk, a little bit. Amelia was like, “Okay, I’m going to take your dogs, right now, and you are going to go to the beach, right now, because you are over your limit and you cannot participate effectively in anything unless you go take care of yourself.”
[00:25:30] I was like, “Fine. I’m going to go to the beach. You are totally wrong but I’ll go because...” and I got to the beach, I drove there fuming the whole time and as soon as I saw the ocean hitting the sand, this gentle oscillation, it changed my body chemistry and I instantly started texting her apologies, “You were totally right.” But I was so deep into it that I couldn’t even tell how deep I was in it. We need each other to listen to each other.
Rachel Thomas (25:55):
Before we go any further, would you define burnout really clearly? Because I think everybody has different notions of what it is.
Emily Nagoski (26:02):
The way we use the term burnout in the book is burnout is the feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, while still worrying that you are not doing enough.
Rachel Thomas (26:13):
There’s a concept of this idea that women need to let go of perfect, and it feels like that’s a little bit in there because you’re saying that people feel overly taxed, exhausted, and yet feel like they’re not doing enough. Is that part of it for you, perfection, or is it much more rooted in giving?
Emily Nagoski (26:30):
It’s chapter two, perfection. Chapter two is about managing the stressors in your life, which is very much about getting realistic about what your goals are and the ways that you can make yourself even more exhausted and overwhelmed by having the goal set by somebody else that you have been taught and trained is the goal you’re supposed to have...
[00:27:00] Can we sit and critically think about, “Is this really the goal you want for you? And if it is, is this really the kind of effort you want to invest in reaching that goal?” And it comes back over and over, this question of what your goal actually is. Is it realistic? Is it meaningful for you? Does it match your sense of purpose and destiny? You’re not actually required to do all of the things the world sets up as the things you’re supposed to be doing. We’ve been lied to about what our role is and what we have to do and we’ve been given false notions about what it means to be enough.
[00:27:30] But, because we are all holding on to the idea that we must be super women, we find asking for help incredibly difficult because it feels like failure to admit that we need help. Because if you can’t do it all, then clearly there’s something wrong with you and not something wrong with it all.
Rachel Thomas (27:46):
Wow. Yes, that’s a lot to take in. You talk a lot about the difference between stress and stressors. Can you explain that to everybody listening? Because I think this really matters.
Emily Nagoski (27:57):
Oh, yes, and it’s one of my favorite things to talk about. Your stressors are the things that activate the stress in your body. We all know what those stressors are. It’s our family. It’s our jobs. It’s the future, capital T, capital F. It’s the patriarchy. All of those things are things that activate stress in your body.
[00:28:30] The stress itself is this physiological response, the adrenaline and cortisol that gets released in response to those stressors. The stress response, we’ve all heard the phrase fight or flight. That physiology is intended to help us cope with a stressor like being chased by a lion. When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do?
Rachel Thomas (28:39):
Emily Nagoski (28:40):
Yeah, you definitely run from the lion and at that point, there’s only two possible outcomes. Either you get eaten by the lion or you survive.
[00:29:00] Imagine a world where... foom, you have this flood of adrenaline and cortisol when you see the lion coming right for you and you run all the way back to your village and someone sees you coming and they wave you into the other side of their door and you put your shoulders against the door and the lion charges and tries to get at you and eventually... gives up. And then you look at this person who just saved your life and you realize you’re finally safe. How does that feel? You’re relieved, glad to be alive. You love your friends and family. The sun seems to shine brighter because you have survived. You have escaped your stressor.
[00:29:30] But these days... Let’s take the stressor of traffic. You are stuck in traffic. You have virtually the same chemistry as if you were running from a lion but you’re just sitting there in traffic. Eventually, you make your way back to your home. When you park and get out of the car, do you now suddenly feel relieved and glad to be alive and you love your friends and family, or do you tromp into your house angrily and take it out on whatever mammal you see first?
Rachel Thomas (29:49):
It’s so interesting because we’re having an outside, physical response to what’s going on and then we have to figure out how to manage that. Is that effectively what you’re saying?
Emily Nagoski (29:58):
Yeah, and the way you manage it effectively is to recognize that there’s a difference between the behaviors that deal with the stressor like completing your commute, or smiling and nodding at the jerk in the meeting. or whatever it is to be socially appropriate, calm and relaxed in front of your children, everything is fine, and then there’s the things you do to deal with the stress itself to complete that stress response cycle which was so innate when it was responding to the kind of stressors we’re biologically built for.
[00:30:30] But now, we have to create intentional structures into our life to help us complete the stress response cycle, which brings me to an infinite list of evidence-based strategies for completing the stress response cycle so that you can deal with the stress because you probably already know how to deal with the stressors.
Rachel Thomas (30:45):
Oh, I’d love to let you walk us through some of those.
Okay. When you’re being chased by a lion, what do you do?
Emily Nagoski (30:52):
Yeah, you run. When you are stressed out by white supremacist, cis hetero, patriarchal, rabidly exploitative late capitalism, what do you do?
Rachel Thomas (31:01):
I don’t think running will work.
Emily Nagoski (31:03):
Well, that’s the thing, is that it does because we’re talking about dealing with the stress itself, not with the stressor. Your body does not know the difference between the white supremacist, cis hetero, patriarchal, rabidly exploitative late capitalism and a lion. It reacts in very much the same way and so when you run, you are not necessarily dealing directly with the stressor, but you’re dealing directly with the stress itself.
[00:31:30] When you get back from whatever physical activity you chose... And it does not have to be running... your body will have released the chemistry. It will believe that it has done something really important. You’ll now be safe inside your body because your chemistry responds to the physical activity.
This is the difference between dealing with the stressor and dealing with the stress itself. I know everybody is like, “Oh, exercise. How great, because I didn’t know exercise is good for me. Thanks.” But this is why exercise is so important. The reason the chemistry of it is so important is because it is actually how we come to feel safe in our bodies.
Great. So exercise is one, which I think really resonates with me and I’m sure everybody listening. What are some of those other strategies, and maybe some that are a little less expected?
Emily Nagoski (32:11):
Yeah. What’s important is that there are definitely people who are like, “Yeah. I know that when I go for that run or I go to that Pilates class, at the end of it, I’m going to be so glad I did it. I’m going to feel so good.” I’m definitely one of those people. I’m a natural exerciser. And Amelia... Again, identical twin... has never had that experience in her life.
[00:32:30] She was doing the workout machine six times a week because she’s a good girl doing what she’s told. Just feels tired and sweaty at the end of it, doesn’t feel like she did anything emotional. But then she started using her imagination. This is the second one.
We all know that imagination can activate a stress response. If you’ve ever sat in the car with your brain spinning and hypothesizing about all the terrible things that could potentially happen, you feel your heart beating faster and you’re gripping the steering wheel even more, or you’re chopping onions in a very angry way.
[00:33:00] You know that your imagination can activate a stress response cycle. The upside of this is that it can also complete a stress response cycle. This means you put yourself inside the imaginative story of conquering whoever your enemy was.
So Amelia, on her elliptical machine, would imagine herself as Godzilla stomping the parking lot and the bursar’s office and her office and all the things at the school where she was so stressed out. And when she added this story, this imagination to the physical activity itself, that is the thing that got her to a place where she released the stress response and she completed the stress response cycle.
[00:33:30] But you don’t have to do it with physical activity. You can literally just lie in bed, close your eyes and imagine yourself beating the crap out of whoever and whatever. You’re allowed to imagine anything you want to. You’re not allowed to commit these acts of violence, but you can imagine anything. As long as your body is engaged in the imaginative process, it’s going to get all the way through the cycle. These stress response cycles want to complete. It’s going to be so glad you went to this place and it’s going to move all the way through.
[00:34:00] Crying is another one that’s related. A lot of us have been taught that crying doesn’t solve anything. Well, that’s not recognizing the difference between solving the stressor and dealing with the stress itself. There’s only very specific circumstances where dealing with the stressor can happen with crying. There are a couple where crying is actually useful for the stressor, but mostly what it’s for is for releasing the stress that got activated in your body so that in five or ten minutes, you just let it all pour out of you and at the end of it, you’re like... [breathes in and out] and your body has moved through the cycle and completed it and gotten to a different place. We’re at four?
Yes, we’re at four.
Emily Nagoski (34:49):
Here’s another expected boring one, but it is so important: sleep. Especially in REM sleep and the dreaming that happens there, your brain will complete stress response cycles that were activated over the course of the day in your dreams. Sometimes, that’s what nightmares are. What a gift they are. I know they’re uncomfortable and it’s not fun, but your brain will do that without you even present for it. In fact, it needs you to go to sleep so that it can do the work for you.
Rachel Thomas (35:18):
That’s so interesting because the power of imagining things and using your imagination to cope, it’s so baked in that our brains do it at night for us.
Rachel Thomas (35:26):
I also love the advice around crying because I find it very cathartic personally, so it’s very validating so thank you for that.
Emily Nagoski (35:42):
Creative self-expression is another one. For me, it’s writing. You know how therapists say journaling is good for you? They do not mean that the construction of sentences or putting verbs next to nouns is good for you. They mean having a neutral place to put all of the feelings that you otherwise would have to hold on to.
[00:36:00] When I write, I sit at my computer or over my journal and I’m writing and I’m sobbing while I do it and I’m releasing all of this stuff out of my body. People have different things that are their creative self-expression. For some people, cooking a meal isn’t just a chore. It really feels like creative selfexpression. Whatever it feels like for you.
Along with crying is laughter. We do not mean the sort of posed, social a-ha-ha... kind of lubricant laughter. It is the embarrassing, helpless, belly laughter that most often happens with other people in connection with other people.
[00:36:30] It’s a way that we bond. It’s a way that our brains feel safe, and we have returned home. If these other things, sobbing over your journal, doesn’t feel like something you’re interested in doing, maybe you’re more interested in laughter, in getting together with people, whether it’s virtually or in real life, and watching a movie together and just laughing as hard as you can. Laughter. Physiologically good for you because it feels like your body has returned home.
Rachel Thomas (36:55):
I like the idea of your body returning home. I like that.
Emily Nagoski (36:59):
It’s pretty literally what your body is doing because remember, you’re escaping the threat and coming to a place of safety.
Keep going. These are fantastic.
Emily Nagoski (37:06):
There’s three that come together and they are different forms of connection. One is connection with other humans, so a hug would be great. There’s a lot of people who recommend the twenty-second hug but really, it’s about hugging until relaxed, as the therapist Suzanne Iasenza puts it, where you put your body next to another person’s body and you both stay over your own center of gravity and you just wrap your arms around each other and hold on to each other for twenty seconds.
[00:37:30] Twenty seconds is a potentially awkwardly long time to hug someone unless you really like and trust them, but that’s exactly the point, is that it gives your body time to notice, “Oh, look. There’s someone in my life whom I like and trust enough that I can put my body against theirs and we hold each other, and I know that I’m in a place of safety.”
[00:38:00] Twenty-second hug. John Gottman’s version of this is a six-second kiss. Six seconds, surprisingly long time to just kiss somebody. You’ve got to really like and trust them and that’s the point, is six seconds is enough for your body to be like, “There’s somebody special in my life who I know I can come home to.” So affection, in this very straightforward way.
But it doesn’t have to be this sort of like dense intimate connection. Even just a little “Hey, hello. How’s the weather?” chat with your seatmate on public transportation...
[00:38:30] I know people are all like, “My life will be better and my seatmate’s life will be better if we sit here in silence and ignore each other.” It turns out no matter how introverted you are, if you have just a little “Hey, how are you? How’s the weather?” conversation on public transport with your seatmate, both of you have better days. People intuitively expect that not to be true, but the research is pretty unambiguous about this one.
[00:39:00] The first sign that the world makes any kind of sense is that other people are willing to make eye contact with you and smile. It is stabilizing for our brains. That can also be just a compliment to your barista, “Oh, I like your earring,” and they smile in return and make a little eye contact and it’s stabilizing. It teaches your brain, “Look, the world does actually make some degree of sense.”
For some people, connection with humans is not where it’s at. Those relationships are too complex. There might be too much expected of you, which brings us to the next kind of connection, which is connection with nature.
[00:39:30] Sometimes, this takes the form of connection with landscapes, hence my story of going to the beach. For me, there’s something about seeing the ocean rolling on to the sand and oscillating back out and oscillating back in. It just re-regulates... My body tunes in to the rhythm of the waves and just finds a place of peace. Everybody’s got some landscape or other... Not everybody, but some people know that the forest is the place for them, or the mountains are the place for them, or the desert is the place for them where their body just feels in tune when they’re in that place.
Rachel Thomas (39:54):
I love all of this. This is fantastic. This is a question I always have. If I’m listening and I’m a woman... Or anybody... who is truly burnt out, and it’s probably because I work two jobs or I just can’t keep up with what’s going on in my life, what do you say to them in terms of, are there other things that they should be doing, given their burnout is so acute? Are there a couple cheats in this list that would bring them some immediate relief? I’m often struck by—some of these feel harder to put into motion, depending on what’s really going on in your life. Like sleep might just really be impossible if you’re burning both ends of the candle.
Emily Nagoski (40:35):
Yes. There are times when it’s just not possible to get adequate sleep, it’s just not possible to do physical activity or creative self-expression or even spend time connecting in whatever way feels right for you. There isn’t a cheat. There’s not a trick. But there is a reality check. It turns out, we don’t need to persist more. We don’t need more grit. We need more help. We do not need to work harder. We need more kindness and compassion and basic support.
[00:41:00] When people are that burned out, they’re overwhelmed and exhausted by everything they have to do because there is literally too much on their plate. They need help. They need someone to come and take some stuff off their plate to create space for the things that will help them to heal from the burnout.
Rachel Thomas (41:19):
Do you have strategies for how to ask for this help? Because it can be tough, particularly depending on who you’re surrounded by.
Emily Nagoski (41:26):
This is a really important question. Even though Amelia and I are identical twins, we grew up in the same household, we shared a room for the first twelve years of our life, but we grew up in a household where we were taught you don’t talk about feelings, you do not communicate anything beyond the superficial, intellectual stuff. Through the process of writing the book, all of this really intense affective neuroscience and two-person neuroscience and psychophysiology, it kept saying over and over that the answer is love, feelings, is sharing, is connection.
[00:42:00] Dang it. We didn’t want that to be the answer. We suck at that. We’re terrible at it.
But the research was just... There was no arguing with it so we began showing up for each other and being the people who could say, “I’m going to take your dogs and you’re going to go to the beach.” I trusted her enough, her attunement with me enough, to do what she said. We are living proof that if you don’t have people like that in your life, you can create those relationships with those people if you are willing to both take a little bit of a leap to fall into trust with each other.
Rachel Thomas (42:31):
Oh, I love that, falling into trust with another.
Emily Nagoski (42:34):
One of the tricky ironies of the process of asking for help is you have to do a lot of emotional labor for the other person, for the person you’re asking, so that they can show up. Now, Amelia and I are an example of how you don’t necessarily have to. When she was, “I’m going to take your dogs and you’re going to the beach,” she didn’t say, “I can tell how exhausted you are, and something I think would be really helpful for you is if you spend a little time at the beach.”
[00:43:00] No, she was pissed off at me because I was being completely inappropriate and jerky. I’m not going to use the B-word, but that’s what I was. Her response to me was, “You’re terrible and I am taking your dogs and you need to go take care of you because that’s enough of that.” She did not do that emotional labor.
But when you’re beginning this process, it’s often very helpful to say, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and exhausted and I could really use your help with X.” And make X a comparatively small thing.
[00:43:30] And yes, this is you doing the labor of asking for the help, which is not getting you all the way to where you want to be where people will just take some stuff, “Here, this is your job. Don’t ask me any questions about it. Just do it. Just get it done. Use your judgment. Just do this for me, would you please?” But when you’re beginning to have these conversations, it’s helpful to hold on to your own emotional state and be really caring and compassionate like we all are for the person we’re asking for help, and concrete and specific in the thing that you are asking for because that’s helpful.
[00:44:00] And, you can begin to have a conversation about... Whatever the relationship is... both people’s expectations and assumptions around giving and receiving help. What are the feelings that you both have about asking for help and about showing up for help and what your roles are?
[00:44:30] If you’re in a heterosexual relationship or even not necessarily, talk about human giver syndrome and the ways that people feel obliged to give and other people feel entitled to receive. Having that sort of meta conversation about why it’s hard to ask for help because you’re a human giver can actually open a lot of doors. I’ve heard from a lot of women that they have these conversations with their human being partners who gradually wake up and start noticing that pattern and can imagine themselves in that scenario and how exhausted they would feel if they constantly felt like it was their job to take care of everyone and everything and also be pretty the whole time. Men are... I think don’t give them quite as much credit as they deserve.
Rachel Thomas (45:01):
I agree with this, actually, this sentiment. I think if you don’t invite them into the solution or into the conversation, then it’s somewhat incumbent upon you. You have to kind of invite them a little bit, I do.
Emily Nagoski (45:11):
The nature of masculinity as it is imagined for us by this particular culture is that they’re supposed to already know everything so to be asked for help, they already have failed because they haven’t anticipated... They didn’t know that somebody needed something. They have to go through a process of releasing that sense of shame that there was something somebody needed that they didn’t already know about so we need to be patient with them while they go through that process.
Rachel Thomas (45:40):
Hear, hear. One of the things you’ve already touched on a little bit but I think is so important is this idea that it benefits us, just little moments of kindness towards others or showing gratitudes towards others. Can you just talk about that a little bit more? Because it’s so easy to do and it’s such a powerful idea.
Emily Nagoski (45:58):
It is so powerful. This is another one of those things where I went into the research on gratitude like, “I’m going to prove that gratitude is not a thing because I think gratitude’s being weaponized against women to make us feel guilty for wanting more from our lives and wanting to be supported more than we are.” Turns out, gratitude actually is super good, but the evidence-based gratitude interventions are not the “Make a list of things you’re grateful for.” If making a list of things you’re grateful for works for you, great. Keep doing that.
[00:46:30] When I tried it, it made me feel like crap because I was like, “What kind of selfish jerk am I that I have to make a list of... Remind myself that I have a roof over my head and stuff like that?”
But instead, there’s two evidence-based gratitude interventions. One is gratitude for who you have. Write a gratitude letter. Say thank you to someone you never got to thank for showing up for you in a way they may not even know mattered that much for you. If you can, read it to that person. It will give you a three to six-month boost in well-being. It is so good for you, expressing gratitude to someone who has been there for you.
[00:47:00] The second evidence-based gratitude intervention is more about how good things happen, so not just that you have a roof over your head or that your family is healthy, but how did that come to be? What are the circumstances that made it possible for you to have something to be so grateful for? I have the roof over my head because my husband could afford the down payment on a house and he was willing to invest in our relationship because he trusts and loves me that much.
Rachel Thomas (47:32):
Oh, that’s so well put. Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you want to make sure our listeners hear?
Emily Nagoski (47:40):
I would just add the component of meaning and purpose, which is another one of those things you’re like, “Yeah, meaning and purpose. It’s really important” Again, we went to the research being like, “Let’s debunk this ridiculous, ordinary piece of advice” and it turns out meaning and purpose is super, super good for you and will sustain you through the worst things you can imagine. But, the way it works is different from how people think.
[00:48:00] Meaning and purpose is made when we connect with something larger than ourselves. That something larger may be any kind of thing. It can be a sense of “I’m going to make the world a better place for these kids” or “I’m going to make sure my partner knows every day that I love them exactly as they are.” But meaning doesn’t just come to us like a prize. We make it every day in our practice of engaging with something larger than ourselves, whatever that thing is.
[00:48:30] When we can get into the practice of engaging with it so that we make the meaning, it will be there for us to sustain us when it feels like we’ve been separated from everything that matters most to us. We can build up a reserve of meaning and purpose if we have a practice of engaging with the something larger, which is going to look different for everybody but is so necessary.
Rachel Thomas (48:53):
So many of Arianna’s and Emily’s recommendations resonated with me, but the biggest thing I took away was that we can’t prevent burnout by ourselves. With everything going on in the world and all the pressure we’re facing, especially women, we need to ask for help. That means opening up to our friends, our families, and even our employers about what we’re going through, and it means listening when people come to us and tell us how we can help.
That’s it for today’s episode of Tilted. You can subscribe to Tilted on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer is Sandy Smallens. Special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Chelsea Paul, Kate Urban, Madison Long, and Nicole Roman from the Lean In team and Katelyn Thompson, Ireland Meacham, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, and Matt Noble at Audiation. I’m your host Rachel Thomas, and I’ll join you next time on Tilted.