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Why we need to move from self-care to caring about each other

A book on stress and burnout makes an interesting case for the need to move from a focus on self-care, to caring about each other, on our collective journey to wellness.

Authors and twins, Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, make several worthwhile arguments in their 2019 book, Burnout, about how stuck emotions affect us physically and can lead to outcomes like emotional exhaustion, physical disease, and negative impacts on our relationships and work.

Emotions, the Nagoskis write, are like tunnels. “If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”

Getting stuck can occur when we squash an emotion or push it down instead of experiencing it fully. But that’s what many of us instinctively do when in stressful situations, especially when feeling strong emotions like rage or pain that can’t be expressed in a socially acceptable way.

Examples the Nagoskis give include when someone catcalls us on the street and we don’t respond, or when we go to a stressful work environment day after day after day.

Even when the stressor - the job, relationship, or event that is causing us pain - is removed, they say, the emotion remains stuck, unless we allow it to complete its life cycle.

“Stress is not bad for you. Being stuck is bad for you,” the sisters told bestselling author and research professor Brene Brown in March, on her Unlocking Us podcast.

The good news is there are multiple practices for releasing stuck emotions, and the solutions the Nagoskis present won’t be a big surprise for most readers. However, the nuances behind them and the reasons they work will be enlightening.

For example, on the Nagoskis’ list of ways to feel and release emotions are physical activity like sports or exercise, crying, laughing and creative expression.

Breathing deeply is another technique, one that is particularly helpful for people who have experienced trauma, neglect or abuse.

“Breathing down-regulates your nervous system, especially when you can take a slow breath in and especially a slow long breath out all the way to the end so that your abdominal muscles is the gentlest way to completing the stress response cycle,” said Emily Nagoski on the podcast.

Basically, Amelia Nagoski said, “The real answer is turning toward the difficult feelings with kindness and compassion ...and let yourself finish the feelings and complete the cycle.”

In their presentation, the Nagoskis emphasize the need for helping each other with these processes. To effectively end burnout and the pain that comes with it, they say, we need to approach the problem with a broad perspective that goes beyond self-care.

“If there’s anything we learned in the process of writing the book is that the cure for burnout isn’t and can’t be self-care,” they said. “It has to be all of us caring for each other.

“Self-care requires a bubble of protection of other people who value your well-being at least as highly as you do; so the cure for burnout must ultimately be all of us caring for each other.”

Interestingly, the Nagoskis would also likely say the idea that wellness is a destination to be reached at the end of a journey is false. It isn’t a state of being, they said, it’s a state of action.

“We hear from a lot of women that they feel like they need peace and want ideas for how to achieve that, as if wellness is a goal or a state that you reach,” they told Brown. “In fact wellness is not a state of being; it’s a state of action...There is no gold at the end of the rainbow, the rainbow (itself) is the goal.”

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