Unlocking the Stress Cycle: A Book Review

Mandi Dunlap

Admittedly so, self-help books have never appealed to me. I always liked the idea of them. I’d Amazon the latest trending copy to myself or check one out from the library for it to collect dust on my nightstand. In the fleeting moments when I have found time to read for my enjoyment in the last nine and a half years of motherhood I have chosen thrilling fictional page turners or dreamy tales in which I could escape the stressors of my present-day world.

            In an effort to tackle my stress levels head-on this calendar year, I’ve been making huge, course altering changes in my life. Changes like leaving a career I’d been at for more than a decade and diving head first into the path I’d always dreamt of pursuing. The path brought me here to Juniper Row, as a contributing writer on a pretty impressive team of empowering women. Couple that new development with my choice to write my first book review about a self-help book addressing the secret to unlocking the stress cycle and ironically I felt STRESSED. The good news is, I was pleasantly surprised when it came time to sit down at my keyboard and write this.

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, was written by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski and is geared towards helping women in particular identify stressors and complete the stress cycle in an effort to stop burnout. The book is broken down into three parts to help the reader navigate their journey from acknowledging stressors, monitoring how to handle them while working towards a higher meaning despite the ongoing threat from what the authors deem the real enemy, and finally leaving the reader with some parting words of wisdom on how to ensure growth in combating burnout.

I was skeptical as I cracked open the spine of my freshly delivered copy of the book. At one point in Part 1 there is a reference to “hippy-dippy bullshit” in terms of unprocessed emotions and their effect on the body, and honestly I’m not a pessimist, but that was previously my feelings towards books of this genre. If that has also been you, stick with me here. Part 1 starts with fictional school teacher Julie, who has reached the point of burnout, telling her friend, “I’ve decided to start selling drugs so I can quit my job.” I was hooked by sentence one of chapter one. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t said the exact same thing, only slightly jokingly, to my husband and friends myself in recent years as I considered leaving my job as an emergency room nurse. I kept reading and my interest continued to be piqued.

Throughout the book the authors bounce between fictional Julie and Sophie, both of who are modeled after a combination of actual women dealing with modern day stressors as well as presenting scientific studies to support their ideas. Part 1: What You Take with You, discusses what stress does to the body and emphasizes the importance of completing the stress cycle because, according to the authors, “If we get stuck there, the physiological response intended to save us can instead slowly kill us.” It continues to map out why women especially might not complete the stress cycle, for example feeling stuck or frozen in a situation because for much of our upbringings we’ve been conditioned to be a “good girl,” who doesn’t rock the boat.

Not rocking the boat can lead to burnout and in turn not only makes you unwell, but can also affect your relationships at both work and home. I wish that there was more focus in this part about ways to combat the controllable stressors discussed. The authors touch on engaging in physical activity to complete the stress cycle as well as breathing, seeking positive social interaction, utilizing a range of emotional expression from laughter to displaying affection to crying, and creatively expressing yourself. While I had wished for more here, I did appreciate that in an effort to be less “hippy-dippy” and more tangible the authors were honest about the fact that there is no cure all, quick fix to handling stress and it’s important to set feasible goals and keep your eye on becoming what they termed, “incrementally better.”

In order to get “incrementally better,” the authors introduce the reader to what they call the Monitor. This tool is something inside all of us that helps to keep a running tally of our effort and progress in dealing with stress. As we monitor, the authors pointed out the need to partake in positive re-appraisal of situations that may not be running smoothly and see challenges as opportunities for both growth and learning. This was the biggest takeaway for me in reading the text. The idea that it is okay to redefine society’s idea of winning. When I graduated at 22 years old with my journalism degree it was difficult to find a job to support myself with so instead of pivoting rationally and setting incremental goals, I freaked out like Ross Gellar with his couch! PIVOT! I never completed that stress cycle either, I just buried it deep and moved onto nursing. That was a respectable job. A job that was meaningful to others, who were somehow more important to please than myself.

The authors next discuss how humans, specifically women, tend to ignore their inner voice. Whether it is your inner voice telling you to go after something or even the opposite when that voice tells you it’s time to move on from something that no longer deserves your energy. Talk about an eye-opener. It’s okay to walk away when enough is enough and it is affecting your mental and physical health. This should be a no-brainer, but let’s face it, it’s hard to do.

            When walking away we aren’t necessarily aimlessly moving about. The authors wrap up Part 1 with the idea that we all have to actively engage in something larger than ourselves. This seems like an easy task, listening to our real inner voice directing us to our calling. Enter what the authors call Human Giver Syndrome, which is in theory the nasty troll guarding the bridge between your current state of despair and your happily ever after. This is a syndrome that infects you to become a slave to people pleasing, something I’ve been accused of my whole life. Another lightbulb moment for me when reading that I could in fact serve others without being infected with this troll of a virus. It isn’t my job as mom, wife, nurse, or woman in general to help everyone else around me meet 100% of their needs while I neglect mine.

            Part 1 of the book was absolutely the most enjoyable and enlightening section for me. It not only introduced me to this idea of completing the stress cycle, actually dealing with the stress and getting to a point of letting it go, but it also taught me how to identify when I’m hindering my own growth and how to monitor realistic goals in terms of managing my own stress and anxiety. I’ve spent years ignoring my “Something Larger” calling after I took myself out of the game when I was afraid of failure.

            As the authors moved into Part 2: The Real Enemy, my personal interest in the book waned. This part of the book delved into the idea that life, “the game,” is rigged. It can be rigged based on gender, race, social status, etc. In this case, the text focused on how it is rigged against women. While interesting scientific studies and scenarios including our fictional gal pals Julie and Sophie were again presented, it seemed like information that most women are surely already well versed in. This section did successfully tie in the idea that the patriarchy persists by continuously invoking Human Giver Syndrome in women, who are just expected to do it all. I liked that even here the authors were realistic in stating that we are not all expected to end the patriarchy as an establishment, but we can all do “something” whether big or small to continue the progress of women’s rights in setting attainable incremental goals for ourselves.

            From the patriarchy section, the focus moved into the realm of body image and aspirational beauty ideas. While sizeism is a real problem in today’s society, it felt like an odd transition in this particular book. I wish that if the authors were adamant on including it that they would have then delved deeper into how it ties into mental health in relation to burnout.

            The book concludes with Part 3: Wax On, Wax Off. This section emphasizes the support factors one needs to handle stressors, complete the stress cycle, and monitor themselves as they “play the game,” and battle burnout. Let’s face it, we will always have stressors and stress but that doesn’t mean they have to slowly kill our body and crush our spirit. Things like having real human connections, whether romantic or platonic, as well as rest top the list of support ideas. Rest doesn’t mean sleep, it can mean sleep, but it also can mean active rest and stepping away when needed. To recharge and increase strength and productivity. According to the authors, these periods of rest may fluctuate during different periods of life, and that is okay as long as we listen to our bodies.

            The book wrapped just when I was personally feeling very engaged again. In all the talk about connecting and actively resting, the authors touched on the idea of toxic perfectionism and I was like, “Ding, ding, ding! It’s me!” It is here that there was brief talk of how this is detrimental to the Monitor and leaves one feeling hopeless. I appreciated the idea that self-kindness and gratitude will help you grow “mightier,” but I wish there was more information shared here with the reader. I’m not exactly sure what that information would be, but I felt like I was left wanting more in regards to handling what the authors called the “madwoman,” who lives in our minds. Perhaps more tools on battling negative self-talk.

            Overall, I was delightfully surprised by this book. I loved that it wrapped with the idea that being cruel to ourselves only intensifies the amount of cruelty in the world and that all of our wellbeing is connected to each other. When I finished reading it I texted my husband, “All in all not bad for a self-help book. Definitely identified with the whole thing, but not sure how to totally fix myself still.” I’m fortunate that I could step away from my stressors recently, refocus my meaning, and practice being kinder to myself. This book only opened my eyes to that further. Not everyone has that ability or a support system in place to do so, but I hands down recommend this book for any woman on the verge or even past the verge and in the midst of burnout. This isn’t a how to guide, as it only grazes the surface of many ideas, but it is a starting point for utilizing self-compassion.

March 7, 2022

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  1. Nancy Collins says:

    I loved this review. I too have had the same feelings about self help books and only recently have given them a chance. I am learning so much about myself now. It’s a whole new world. Thanks for the encouragement.

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