Review of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski
I received this book nearly a year ago (maybe a whole year ago) from my friend and former teaching colleague Emma. I had gifted her Come As You Are, Dr. Emily Nagoski’s earlier book about sex. Burnout is, as the title implies, about the sustained sensation many of us feel when we have overextended ourselves and depleted our resources. As the subtitle implies, this book promises to deepen our understanding of burnout. It is a self-help book, but only in the most scientific and compassionate sense of that genre—the Nagoski twins make no promises of “curing” your burnout, and they evince a healthy skepticism of the self-care industry. Instead, this is a book about recognizing and understanding where you are in your stress cycle and how you can manage that stress in a healthier way. It won’t fix your problems, but it might make life a little easier to bear.
This was an emotional read. Page xi of the introduction states, “Twenty to thirty percent of teachers in America have moderately high to high levels of burnout.” I nearly broke down crying when I read that, and we weren’t even into the book itself! I am a teacher in Canada, and you can read a little rant about my burnout here. Suffice it to say … yeah, this book is meant for me.
Now, I already knew a lot of what the Nagoskis share in this book. I think that will be true for most of us who live with burnout. Some of the advice is very obvious, like the value of physical activity (though I am pleased how they emphasize that physical activity includes more than exercise!). I like this. I also appreciated how they frame everything in terms of “completing the stress cycle.” They distinguish between dealing with the cause of stress and dealing with the stress itself, acknowledging that the former action can be difficult but sometimes when we deal with the cause, we forget to deal with the stress that was caused.
There might be a few good revelations in here, but the value of this book isn’t in revelations; it’s in relevance. Emily and Amelia ground their recommendations in science, examining how hormones, neurotransmitters, and other physiological markers of stress response influence our emotions (and vice versa). Similarly, they connect their ideas to exemplars drawn from their experiences with real people. They engage with structural issues of racism and sexism, acknowledging that a great deal of our stress comes from harm baked into the system rather than our own individual choices.
Indeed, Burnout’s attention to structural causes of stress is so important and another way it stands out from much self-help literature. The Nagoskis explicitly call out patriarchy as a reason so many women experience burnout. Through their explanation of “Human Giver syndrome,” they explore scenarios that many women will find all too familiar thanks to the ways in which our society encourage us to give, give, give. Certainly I could identify with this.
I found their reminder that we can “smash the patriarchy” in small ways very valuable and important. There is so much happening in the world right now, so much hatred, and it can feel discouraging. How can I stand against this, especially when I’m burnt out? They provide some practical tips, which boils down to do something rather than wallowing in the idea that we are powerless.
This book focuses a great deal on women, and in particular cis women. Regardless, I think that people of all genders can appreciate most of this book—it’s just that the Nagoskis point out that certain manifestations of burnout (such as Human Giver Syndrome) tend to be more prevalent in women. In their introduction, they include a disclaimer that is meant to be trans-inclusive, boiling down basically to the idea that because the research has only been done on cis women, they can’t reliably discuss or draw conclusions about a more gender-expansive definition of people:
In this book, when we use the word “woman,” we mostly mean “people who identify as women,” but it’s important to remember when we describe the science, we’re limited to the women who were identified at birth and raised as women, because that’s mostly who has been studied. (Sorry.)
So. We try to be as science-based as we can be, but we’re aware of its limits.
It’s a nice apology, and I truly believe the Nagoskis are allies to trans and gender-diverse people.
But it’s also not good enough.
Cis authors, you cannot keep throwing your hands up in the air and saying, “But science doesn’t see trans people!” This just perpetuates a cycle of erasure. In the case of Burnout, the next paragraphs attempt to assert that where science doesn’t suffice, “art comes in,” yet that promise is not actually borne out in the book. This reinforces the dichotomy that Western, peer-reviewed science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. While the Nagoskis claim they will “talk about Disney princesses, sci-fi dystopias, pop music” and more, these references are fleeting and seldom accorded the same weight as the science. More importantly, after taking the time to acknowledge the existence of gender diversity, trans people are not mentioned at all for the rest of the book. Even if there is a dearth of research on us, you could at least have gone around and interviewed some of us and done a chapter—hell, I would take a section—about how burnout affects trans people in particular.
Don’t get me wrong: as I stated earlier in my review, I love the emphasis that Burnout places on science. At the same time, I have committed myself to doing better at noticing the erasure of trans people and calling it out, because that’s the only way we are going to do better. (If you want an example of a science book I recently read by a cis author who actually includes trans people, check out Bitch by Lucy Cooke!)
Aside from that caveat, I greatly enjoyed (if that’s the right word) this book. Emily and Amelia’s writing style is pithy and amiable despite talking about serious topics. The strategies they suggest, while not new, are a good reminder of what I can be doing to help myself reset and recharge this summer. I am burned out, and Burnout does not offer a panacea—but it does offer explanations, guidance, and hope.