Book Review: Burnout – The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

As with many of the books I have reviewed this year, I learned about this book when I was listening to the Brenê Brown podcast “Unlocking Us” last summer.  After listening to the authors discuss the book, I knew it was a book I wanted to read but I will admit I was a little hesitant to use it as a book review for Forward Fitness. So full disclaimer, this book is written by women for women.  It is very specific to how and why women experience stress and much of the reasoning discussed in this book has to do with cultural norms.  I do think that the ideas presented in this book about the stress cycle and how to complete the cycle could work for anyone but for the male readers out there, this might not be the book for you.

The authors of this book Emily and Amelia Nagoski are identical twins.  Emily is a health educator with a PhD and Amelia is a coral conductor who has experienced health issues due to holding on to stress.  They state that this is a book for women who are feeling overwhelmed or “not enough”.  They define “burnout” as a “combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a decreased sense of accomplishment”. In most of the book they refer to the “stress cycle” and how your body responds to stress and what can happen if you don’t complete the cycle.  In the introduction of the book they illustrate it this way; “Emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through you get to the light. Emotional exhaustion happens when you get stuck in the tunnel.” 

The book is set up into three sections.  The first section defines the stress cycle, gives an overview of how to complete the cycle and finding meaning in your life.  The second part of the book is called “The Enemy” and this is the section of the book where the authors discuss the cultural norms that women deal with that contribute to the level of stress in women’s lives. Here they explore the concept of “Human Giver Syndrome” which has to do with women taking on the role of caregivers and the “Bikini Industrial Complex” which is the unrealistic body image ideas that society, especially advertisers have put on women. The third section of the book is where the authors discuss in more detail the ways that you can complete the stress cycle.  At the end of each chapter there is a list of the most important ideas in the chapter. Throughout the book the authors tell the story of two women. The how and why of stress in their lives and how they move through it.  These are not real women but composites of women that the authors created from the many interviews they did in their research for the book.  

I really enjoyed this book.  I read it in two days and for me that is saying a lot. I love to read, but I am not a sit down and read a book in one sitting kind of reader.  Just like I can’t binge watch a TV series, I like to take my time and read a book one chapter at a time over the course of a few days or weeks.  This one kept my interest as I was reading, and I just kept going.  Do I agree with every idea in the book? No, but I do think that stress is a major contributor to health problems and there are some good thoughts on how to combat stress in this book.  I also agree that men and women experience stress in different ways. 

In Chapter 2 the authors list the following as ways to complete the cycle: physical activity (20-60 minutes a day), breathing, positive social interaction, laughter, affection, crying, and creative expression.  In the third section of the book, they go into detail about breaking the stress cycle. There is a chapter that focuses on human connection and how important it is to have a support system in place to help you during times of stress and remembering it is okay to ask for help.  The next chapter is on the importance of rest. The final chapter is about self-compassion.  In this chapter the authors introduce the idea of the “Mad Woman in the Attic” this is a reference to the book Jane Eyre   and refers to that voice in your head that often holds you back from achieving your goals. The authors encourage you to figure out exactly who that mad woman is so that you can confront her when you start to hear her voice.  This was the best part of the book for me. The day I was reading this section I had a run in with my very own “Mad Woman in the Attic”. I was able to think about how I normally process that voice in my head and start to develop a plan on new ways to work through those times of self-doubt.

My niece is in her 30’s. She is a teacher and a coach.  She listens to the “Unlocking Us” podcast because I recommended it to her.  She is not a big reader and after listening to the podcast with the Nagoski sisters she told me she thought I should read this book and then tell her what I thought of it.  A couple weeks ago she reached out to me for some suggestions on books she might like. She specifically wanted books that I had read for my Forward Fitness book reviews.  When she stopped by my house to pick up books, I couldn’t give her this one because I needed to read it for this review.  I’m going to see her later this week and I will be giving her this book. I might even suggest she move it to the top of her book stack.

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