Many of us wish we could take our younger selves aside and give them advice, or even just a pep talk, about the years ahead. That includes Dr. Amelia Nagoski, DMA, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.
Co-written with her sister, Dr. Emily Nagoski, PhD, the book’s genesis was inspired by Amelia’s own experience of burnout while working on her Doctor of Musical Arts.
Ahead of her keynote at the University of Calgary’s Summer Wellness Series, Amelia Nagoski gives some insight about burnout, her experience within academia and what she would say to her younger self, if she could.
What is burnout?
“Burnout is not a medical diagnosis. It's not a mental illness,” explains Nagoski from her home in New England. “It's a condition brought on by a gap between who you are and what is demanded of you. Your body is built and designed to experience stress, but it is designed to then oscillate back into a state of calm and relaxation.
“Just like we're meant to sleep, we're meant to wake. We’re meant to be in connection, and sometimes we're meant to be in isolation. No one is meant to live in one single state. It is the getting stuck in one state that creates the burnout.”
Personal experience with burnout
Despite loving music and choral conducting, Nagoski found the politics of her doctoral program overwhelming.
“Classical music is one of the strongest remaining vestiges of white supremacy and patriarchy,” she says. “I did not conform to anybody's expectations about what a conductor would look like, so I spent a lot of my energy in the politics … not offending anyone by being too much myself.”
These experiences kept adding up and it wasn’t long before Nagoski ended up in the hospital.
Nagoski says the doctors told her it was just stress and she was told to go home and relax — difficult when commuting some 130 miles a day for a full-time doctoral program, working three part-time jobs, and being a stepmother to three teenagers.
Luckily, her twin sister has a PhD in public health. “When I was hospitalized, she started communicating to me in our love language, which is peer-reviewed research,” Nagoski says.
How she healed
As she recovered from burnout, Nagoski learned how stress was manifesting in her body. Empowered with knowledge and validation, she found she was able to pay more attention to what she needed. “I started getting more in touch with my own internal experience,” she says. “I started practising tai chi and getting more serious about my meditation practice.
“There’s this joke … ‘I love my job at academia. It's so flexible. I can work my 80 hours whenever I want each week.’ Our resources are pulled in so many directions, and we don't have enough to give.” Nagoski also learned to better manage boundaries in her academic life as she recognized the potential for burnout, even long after completing her doctorate in 2013.
While writing their book, some of the most effective ways the sisters found to complete the stress cycle include: physical activity; connections with family, friends, pets or spirituality; affection and laughter; and creative self-expression.
What she would tell her younger self
So, if Nagoski was able to give her younger self, wrestling with burnout, some words of wisdom, what would they be?
1. Emotions exist and your feelings are real
Nagoski lives with autism, as well as alexithymia, which results in difficulty identifying and expressing emotions in oneself and others. She says the No. 1 thing she’d want her younger self to know is this: “Emotions exist, they are real, and they can be addressed and healed separate to the stressor that is occurring.
“Emotions are physiological cycles that happen in your body. They're not just imaginary ideas, People aren't making it up or acting dramatic … They're happening in your body, and they're based on your stress response overreacting, and you can complete that stress-response cycle the way it was intended to before you even solve the problem you're stressed out about.
“Just because you finish grad school doesn't mean you have dealt with the stress in your body,” Nagoski says. “But good news: you can start to deal with the stress in your body before you finish grad school, so that you can actually finish grad school without it killing you.”
2. Misogyny, racism, ableism: Power structures contribute to burnout
Nagoski knew sexism and power dynamics existed well before she started grad school; she just didn’t know how prevalent and harmful they were, and how they were contributing to her life.
“‘Amelia, people are going to look at you and see ‘woman,’ and they're going to treat you differently than they would treat someone they perceive as a man. That's actually happening to you.’
“I knew sexism was a thing, but I never applied it to my actual lived experience,” Nagoski says today. “It's not just about gender dynamics, either. It's about all kinds of power dynamics, like race and physical ability and mental health and neurodivergence.
“There are so many intersections where people without access to power are treated differently and suffer real physical consequences from that kind of minority stress. So, learning that that was real was just mind-blowing.”
Self-compassion, Nagoski says, is a necessary practice for herself and anyone, especially given the pressure of societal norms and constructs that exist in many environments and can lead to self-criticism.
“‘Amelia, I know you love how cool you are and how excited you are to be a person in the world, but you're going to experience friction between who you are and who the world expects you to be. The thing you need to do is become really good friends with that experience of friction.’”
The conductor adds: “There’s this trope — the ‘madwoman in the attic.’ You know, your inner critical voice. ‘Be friends with that ‘madwoman.’ Learn what she has to teach you, so that, when she comes screaming with her fear and rage, you know how to respond; to reassure her that you're the grown-up.’
“‘You love who you are, and you will be surrounded by people who also love you. You don't need to conform to arbitrarily, socially constructed ideals to be safe. You have your own herd that you are in the middle of. It's your people who matter.’”