Burnout. It’s all over the news, it’s all over your social feeds. You’re probably living some version of it, but aren’t sure what it is and how to change it. Let’s take a closer look at the physiology of burnout together. We’ll look at the history of how we talk about burnout, and learn about how it can show up differently in different people.
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Valerie Morgan, Nate Klemp, Tiana Clark, Alia Crum, Connor Franta, Christina Maslach, Amelia, Pooja Lakshmin
Valerie Morgan 00:00
I started having some issues with like, hypertension. And it was only when I was at work. Departments were losing people, but it was intentional. They’re offering less and less hours. So every single employee is doing the work of two or three. And then I started looking at wages. And I realized that there had not been substantial raises in about 20 years. I mean, there were a lot of comments from White people in the community that would say, well, if you’re not happy, just go get another job. And why are you working at a grocery store? Those are for high school kids, you start to feel like, wow, that’s how people see me. I mean, the burnout, just it happens so fast. I mean, we’re overworked, we’re not getting paid enough. We’re stressed out about our health, we’re stressed out about what’s going to be around the corner, what wages we’re gonna make. So if I’m the store, mom, because that’s kind of how I feel sometimes, like I’m a store mom, everybody comes to me, like they aren’t comfortable talking to management. So they’ll talk to me. So I found myself having to absorb all the frustrations of so many people. It just seeps into your relationships, your own personal relationships, your relationship with yourself. It’s hard to keep your head above water. When you feel the beat down. Every day. Hold on, I’m getting my blood drawn. Just got the Pope to go. Okay. So I literally felt like my body was falling apart. Just talking about right now. My heart is like, racing. I mean, look at me, now. I’m in the hospital, because I’m not able to relax. And when they told me I had diverticula, I just got off. Because I shouldn’t be, it’s hard to deal with because you don’t realize how much your body breaks down when you try and take care of yourself and you’re trained to take care of so many others too. And you feel like you’re talking to a wall. You know, and I’m just one story. Every single person is going through this in some way or another. People are dying a slow miserable death and they don’t even know it. Because the stress is the killer
Connor Franta 03:04
My chest is tight. My whole-body tenses up. But I also have this opening of my brain of just like pure empathy and sadness for her at the same time. Visceral. Listening to Valerie Morgan, who by the way works at the Colorado Supermarket Chain, King Soopers. Wow. I mean, I’ve been that poor soul with a broken-down body dying that slow, miserable death. I have been in those shoes. Then again, I’ve never been a frontline essential worker during a global pandemic, the way Valerie Morgan has been for the past two years and counting. That’s definitely outside my own personal experience. But I can still feel my heart in my stomach right now. And then there’s this part of my head that I can’t quite shut down. Maybe you listen and are hearing it in your head too, like, this heartbreaking story. Why is she telling it from the hospital? Where are the boundaries? But then, you know, I think about it a little more. And that judgment starts to soften and melt away. Because yeah, I’ve been there too. completely losing my shit talking to a wall. And then then I kind of get it because in this moment, where Valerie is undone by the weight of the world, she’s choosing to be heard she’s choosing connection. Valerie, I hear you loud and clear saying look world. This is what you did to me, these malfunctioning intestines in this broken body with the pressures and the pitting me against the very people who should be my people and the piling up of work on top of work, you’ve burnt me out. This is BURNOUT You’re burnt out. I’m burnt out. Also, I’m your host, Connor Franta. And this is a podcast about how society reached this burning point. Close your eyes and think about the word burnout. Bet you’re seeing a bunch of black and matches or maybe a stock image of a business casual man face down on his keyboard. overworked, tired, exhausted, a little bit pathetic. Yeah, I think you have the picture. I know it far too well, because well, a few years ago, that book of charcoal stain matches that was kind of my life. Now, if you know me already, you like really know me? Because I’ve posted most moments of my life online for the past 12 years for millions of people to see. But you know, if you don’t know me, don’t worry about it. Who cares? This isn’t even about me. But just for some quick context. I got big in the very early days of YouTube way back in 2010, uploading videos about my Midwestern life. I’m talking about absolutely nothing. I There’s not even a thought going on behind those eyes. Uploading videos about my youth which turned into uploading videos about my young adult life and you know, pretty quickly, my little hobby turned into my big career. I was riding a wave, you know, followers in the millions, opportunities in the 1000s fame, success, money baby. I had it all. All I had to do was keep that momentum moving forward like a high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka write content, film content, edit content, upload content, content, content, content, immerse myself within that cycle, like my entire livelihood depended upon it. People liking me was proof I was succeeding. Let me know now over here. All people had to do was watch me and engage with me. And honestly, my future was golden. And then I had a breaking point. The years of nonstop, go go go go go. Really caught up to me. Quick and hard.
Connor Franta 07:36
At my low point, I couldn’t face that guy. That persona. I had spent so many years crafting and putting out there for the world to consume. I could not become him. I wasn’t him anymore. But also, I couldn’t stop the content machine. I’d be replaced or quickly forgotten. On camera, I was normal. But off camera I became one with my couch my body was fused to the cushions for weeks on end like an egg left to long on a scalding hot frying pan. Luckily, and while Long story short, during my low points, I had privilege, time space, financial stability, and everything to seek out help. And even when everything in my brain told me to run away from that buzzing swarm of hornets, that was my anxiety, I made the choice to face it head on and meet my stress with compassion. years of effort and practice later. Here I am with time and the distance from mental health oblivion, to ask the questions about why that happened to me and how I got to such a terrifying place. Along the way, I’ve quickly come to realize it’s not just me. It’s happening to everyone everywhere. I pan my eyes around and see people buckling under the pressure of what exactly. There are books about it and breathless network news segments. You hear about it on the radio, you hear it from your friends and you hear it from your gut. You see it working itself out in the so-called great resignation. Surely there is a better way. Because what we’ve got right now is making us miserable. It’s putting us in the hospital, turning our lives nasty and brutish before cutting them short. That’s why for four episodes, we’re donning our skeptics hat and adjusting our monocles to look closer at this thing we call burnout. It’s about the individual that’s the big dog. But you know what, it’s actually about the institution’s maybe the real big dog and then when you think about it more, it’s about the culture. That’s all the dogs and if we think even bigger about it, it’s about the system love a good takedown of the system. But first the individual people like you, people like me, people like Valerie Morgan, who we heard at the top, corresponding live from her hospital room. But what exactly is going on in our soft squishy human bodies that’s leaving us all burned out? Don’t worry, it’ll be fun. Grab that mat, strike that incense. Actually will be deconstructing all that to just hang in there. Give me a sec.
Valerie Morgan 10:38
Burnout, is one thing but it’s like if you look at everything that’s under that umbrella of burnout. Oh my god, it’s scary.
Connor Franta 11:20
Valerie Morgan started her career at King Soopers in 2017 versus a barista at the in-store Starbucks before moving on to a job as an optimum wellness specialist in the supplement department. When we spoke to Valerie in her hospital room, she was obviously in the midst of a full on no two ways about it acute case of burnout. But it wasn’t always like that. Back in the early days. She said she liked the job.
Valerie Morgan 11:48
I had no stress with Starbucks and I had no stress with optimum wellness. It was great. From the onset everything was wonderful and it was really pretty much a stress-free job but then things started to change because you know well, coronavirus, coronavirus just brought a slew of very stressful situations you know, we’re uncertain about what’s going to happen, what is this thing? How long is it going to last and politics gotten away and it became really crazy stressful in the job world.
Connor Franta 12:27
Coronavirus, there are so many gifts to society. But pile that pandemic stress on top of increasing workloads, low wages and crumbling morale. Your daily routine becomes a hellish wormhole straight to the center of burnouts ville.
Valerie Morgan 12:41
And lotions that you get from a toxic work environment. They seep into every aspect of your life. You can’t get away from it. When you feel like you’re not valued. When you’re not recognized. It almost felt like people started to lose their sense of purpose. And the empathy is gone. The moral fortitude. Nobody cares anymore.
Christina Maslach 13:10
This is every day. This is the pebbles in your shoe. This is the stuff that erodes your soul.
Connor Franta 13:15
Dr. Christina Maslach has pretty much spent her entire career as an experimental social psychologist at the University of California Berkeley. In fact, she pioneered the field of burnout research there back in the 1970s and 80s.
Christina Maslach 13:29
I didn’t know about burnout had heard of word burnout. But I mean, usually meaning other things. I mean, my dad was an engineer. And so we heard burnout all the time. You know, rocket boosters burnout, light bulbs burnout, ball bearings burn, you know, so it does refer to a kind of thing that stops functioning after a while because of some real problems.
Connor Franta 13:51
Early on, Christina picked up on a pattern in her research subjects who are all first responders and emergency workers. Every one of them seemed to be desperately unhappy. But in this one weird, specific way.
Christina Maslach 14:05
Could you think of this as the tach concern is you know that ah, and yeah, no, not really, about burnout. Yes, that’s it. That’s it, you know, kind of thing. So there was something about the word, the imagery, that somehow people connect to.
Connor Franta 14:21
Yeah, that burnout imagery resonates really hard with me. It’s pretty much the perfect metaphor and one with a story behind it. One that goes back to 1970s, New York baby. We’re talking about an era of financial crisis and record crime […] at studio 54. And somewhere in between, on the Lower East Side, a little free clinic on St. Mark’s place. Manhattan’s notorious Bowery today it’s known as derelict valley. That’s where a German born psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger set up shop to treat people suffering from what we now call substance use disorder. This is a guy who saw a lot of raw need, like the weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and he handled it by giving more and more of himself. He worked at a private practice for 10 to 12 hours a day, and how does that make you feel? And after all that, he’d raced downtown to the free clinic to treat even more patients. Oh, and Freudenberger also had a family. Oh my God, his life is really, really stressing me out. But what else do families do? Well, they plan family vacations. Fast forward to the morning of the bags are packed the cabs outside but Freudenberger. He’s stuck in bed. All the energy in the world drained out of him he can’t get up to take his damned vacation. Clutching his trusty tape recorder he starts to cycle analyze himself.
Connor Franta 15:56
Freudenberger is a guy who knows how to recognize depression. He’s on a first name basis with fatigue. But this feels like something completely different. His mind wanders to the drug users he treats at St. Mark’s place. He imagines them slouched against the wall outside the clinic keep pictures the cigarettes dangling from their mouths smoldering, until they eventually burn out. And the rest is history. Now, if Freudenberger gave us the metaphor, it was Christina Maslach, who filled in the details. She studied the heck out of burnout and ID’d it’s three telltale symptoms. She says that it happens when we suck at managing chronic stress on the job.
Christina Maslach 17:14
So the three components are the exhaustion, but burnout is really more than that. I mean, if people are exhausted, but still love their job, still feel good about the work they’re doing. They are what we call overextended. I mean, they are tired, they are exhausted. Then there is what we call cynicism, depersonalization. This is where people develop a very negative, cynical, hostile, take this job and shove it you know, kind of attitude to the workplace. The cynicism is a particularly important hallmark of burnout, because when that begins to set in, people are switching from trying to do their very best to do the bare minimum. And the third component is a negative response to oneself. Feeling maybe I’m not really good at this. Maybe I’ve made a mistake going into here. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do better? And when all three of those happen, that’s really what the sort of full blown, you know, burnout experience is.
Connor Franta 18:32
Strictly clinical burnout. Always definitely a work thing. It happens because of your job. It happens in some jobs more than others. And it especially happens if your job has to do with helping people.
Christina Maslach 18:46
So healthcare always has been there. Social Services, Education, customer facing.
Connor Franta 18:53
Customer facing jobs, you know, like working in a supermarket, like Valerie Morgan.
Valerie Morgan 18:59
Trying to maintain good mental health myself, and trying to deal with other people to keep them on the even keel, just a lot.
Christina Maslach 19:12
And that can translate unfortunately, into treating people badly. Being rude, being abusive thinking of them as things rather than as human beings.
Valerie Morgan 19:22
You lose touch with reality, like everything becomes negative and dark. And you don’t trust people.
Christina Maslach 19:30
And that is often the part that people don’t want to talk about.
Valerie Morgan 19:34
It just makes you feel like you’re in a toxic cesspool that you cannot get out of.
Christina Maslach 19:41
There is a stigma to burnout. But
Connor Franta 19:45
most people aren’t clinicians. So a strictly clinical definition of burnout doesn’t quite do it for the rest of us. Burnout has become the metaphor for modern life.
Christina Maslach 19:53
The word gets used and for everything I mean, I’ve heard about is there a museum director burnout, you know, how about […] burnout? How about parent burnout? How about working from home burnout? And I always get asked, am I burned out from burnout?
Connor Franta 20:09
Clinicians? Please don’t ask me, but I think there’s a case to be made for a broader idea of burnout that goes beyond your job. Come on. Let’s take a peek beneath the hood at the shenanigans going on inside the body. When we burn out, it all comes down to chemicals and hormones that bubble up with stress. That’s after the break. Hi, It’s Connor, it’s all feeling like a lot, isn’t it? Maybe your shoulders are around your ears and pay is that your tongue pasted to the roof of your mouth. Let’s take a moment to breathe, courtesy of our friends at mindful. Feeling a bit better, more in your body. Me too. When you’re ready for more of that visit mindful.org/burnout. For more guided meditations that we’ll help you deal with any feelings that came up during this episode.
You’ve got a small child, and you’re leaving in 20 minutes, and you say to the child, we’re leaving in 20 minutes, I need you to go put your shoes on.
Connor Franta 22:18
Amelia Makowski has a very personal relationship with burnout a few years ago, overwhelming stress landed her in the hospital. Yeah, she and Valerie Morgan have that in common. But hospitalization is super high stakes. So let’s shrink that down, way down, all the way down to the size of a small child.
And then 10 minutes later, and they still haven’t got their shoes on. And then a minute later, they don’t have shoes on and they don’t have pants on anymore. And you’re like what is going on in your mind child. And you’re trying to be so patient and smile at this child. But in your body, you know that you’re going to be late to your thing, a thing that you’ve decided is important, but you can feel your heart pounding, and your muscles twitching and therefore, part of your survival and your body responds with like a very limited set of options.
Connor Franta 23:30
Amelia owns epic battle with the stress response got her curious. She teamed up with her sister Emily to research and write the book on unlocking the stress cycle. Whatever key insights, stress isn’t just emotional. It’s physical.
It is a physiological response that has evolved in us as mammals and we share it with most of the rest of mammals too
Connor Franta 23:56
Stress is a biological system. It’s not just in your head. And when Amelia says it’s something that happens in your body, she’s not joking. It’s happening in your body and it’s happening to your body. In fact, the whole idea that your head is somehow what not a part of your body, honey, that’s garbage. But we’ll come back to that later. For now, just know that no part of our stress response is an accident. We evolved that bodily stress system because it was our best shot at surviving, you know, back in the day.
So what happens is we’re going about our day in the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness oh, here’s a scary predator approaching. Oh my gosh, there’s a lion right there. What do you do? You feel panic and the physical experience of panic includes like a, you might feel a cold chill under your skin, you might feel some like uneasiness in your stomach. This is because your amygdala, the deep lizard, ancient evolutionary parts of the brain that we share with a lot of other animals has recognized a threat. And therefore it releases hormones, all kinds of neurotransmitters, electrical signals, in order to change every system in your body. So your heart starts to beat faster, and your breath starts to get deeper and possibly faster, the blood recesses from the surface of the skin so that if you get cut, you’re less likely to bleed to death. So all your systems understand the emergency of here and now to run and jump and climb and escape. You are running to escape the lion, which is exactly what your body prepares you to do. And then you look out from the crevice of the rock where you hid yourself. And you can see the lion has given up lions walking away, and you are safe. And how does that feel? Amazing, you can feel alive like you’ve never felt before the sun shining brighter and, and your heart beating in your chest in a way that makes you so happy to be alive. And you want to go home and hug all your friends and family and tell the story and jump up and down and sing a song about it. That feeling is the complete stress response cycle. It was designed evolutionarily to save your life from the kinds of things that have teeth and claws and can run 40 miles an hour, which were the primary source of stress back in the day.
Connor Franta 26:58
We tend to think about stress as just a big knotted a ball of unpleasantness. But Amelia gets really precise about it. She breaks it up into two parts, the stress sore, which is the thing out there in the world making you sweat. And then the stress response, which is the chain of chemical reactions inside of your body stressor outside of your body, stress inside your body got it. So you run to get away from the lion. But another thing also happens when you run.
You use up all of these neurotransmitters that are floating around your bloodstream by using the stress response to solve the problem that had presented itself.
Connor Franta 27:41
How harmonious, I love evolution. Here’s the catch, our stress response, it hasn’t been updated in a few 100 millennia.
We still have this same response. Now even though our stressors no longer have teeth and claws. Our bodies still respond as though it was that kind of danger.
Connor Franta 28:03
Well, our stressors may not have claws anymore, but they might still have teeth, cute little baby ones in cracker crumbs on their chins and shoes that remain stubbornly not on their feet. Hey, Dad, great work. But don’t get too self-congratulatory just yet.
Even if your kid puts their shoes on, that doesn’t mean that you’ve dealt with the stress in your body just because the problem got solved. You didn’t fight, you didn’t flee, you didn’t have any of the physical responses that would use up all the neurotransmitters and respond to all the electrical signals. And so we just get stuck there in your body.
Connor Franta 28:57
If the stress response is a bunch of chemicals and hormones coursing through your body, burnout is what happens when you marinate in those chemicals for too long.
So it might end up with like chronic tension in your shoulders. That turns into like chronic pain or inflammation. It might end up in your cardiovascular system, it might end up in your circulatory system, it might end up in your digestive system. Hey, does anybody have stress induced digestive problems?
Connor Franta 29:27
You’ve gotten the kids out the door, you’ve dropped them off at school? Yes. But the neurotransmitters and hormones are still there sloshing around your body because you still haven’t completed the stress cycle in your body. And if you don’t address that stress, they can really build up.
In order to prevent any of that build up from happening. We have to deal with the stress in our bodies in a separate process than we use to deal with the things that have caused our stress because the things that cause our stress can no longer be solved by the stress response cycle in our bodies.
Connor Franta 30:01
Evolution is amazing. Until it’s a bitch.
Tiana Clark 30:08
I was on book tour. And when I was teaching full time, I literally ended up in the hospital with stomach ulcers. And my body was literally breaking down.
Connor Franta 30:17
This is Tiana Clark. She’s writer, poet and professor at Smith College.
Tiana Clark 30:21
Burnout, I think is just a metaphor for how we all feel under this intense pressure to produce, you know, when the world is falling apart.
Connor Franta 30:33
She knows all too well how unresolved stress from overwork and continuously circulating stress chemicals can physically damage your body.
Tiana Clark 30:42
I remember one time I was in South Carolina for a poetry workshop and I was having migraines every day. And I was popping ibuprofen like Tic Tac’s. And I would give like a poetry prompt and run to the bathroom, give another poetry prompt and run to the bathroom. And I was so violently ill, and I look back at that moment, and I was like, Why didn’t anyone be like, hey, are you okay? And then also two, why didn’t I ask myself was I okay? Like it was so important to me to keep working.
Connor Franta 31:10
To Tiana’s credit, it’s hard to check in with yourself when your to do list is on a constant feedback loop in your brain. And as a Black woman, Tiana was dealing with a whole other level of chronic stress, one that’s tied not only to her job, but also to her existence. So when burnout recently became the internet’s favorite buzzword, Tiana was frustrated to find that there was nothing even close to her experience reflected in the conversation.
Tiana Clark 31:36
It was as if White people had just woken up to this fact that they were tired. Black people were born tired and have been tired and there’s a legacy of exhaustion. There’s a legacy of work, and overwork. I’ve been underpaid, and undervalued. You know, this is what Black burnout feels like. Black burnout feels very, it’s very akin to what the Black experience in America feels like. A cousin to racism, a cousin to oppression, a cousin to the effects of empire.
Connor Franta 32:13
Sometimes it shows up as stark inequity.
Tiana Clark 32:16
It goes back to slavery, when there was free labor. And then I still think now like Black women are paid less on the dollar to their White male counterparts.
Connor Franta 32:25
Sometimes it looks more like nursing an invisible wound.
Tiana Clark 32:29
But when there’s a Black person that dies in the news from police brutality, like those, that’s a moment where if I have a white Boss, I’m very afraid to like, call out of work. But it’s really hard for me to go to work on those days, because my mind is suffering through this huge trauma.
Connor Franta 32:46
It all adds up. At one point, Chantal looked around her and saw that she had all the trappings of success. She was a tenured professor. She was a published writer and an in-demand speaker. But she realized that her life was still very different from her White colleagues with similar accomplishments.
Tiana Clark 33:03
The things that were hard for me to do, were like, how do I show up in the classroom, and I felt this pressure to like, dress very professionally, like I was on this constant hamster wheel that I couldn’t afford to break down in my life, for my students, for myself, for my career, and all the pressures that are on my shoulders of coming out of poverty. I don’t like pitting panes against each other. But I think this idea of burnout is couched in this conversation on capitalism and recognizing that we are all not at the same starting place.
Connor Franta 33:39
That starting place is something Tiana thought about as she lay in her hospital room, after she found herself badly burnt out.
Tiana Clark 33:45
And I just I ever remember actually being relieved to have an excuse not to go to my next event because I was in the hospital. But why did it take me being in the ER to be able to take care of myself like it should never get to that point. Like how many times have our languages like oh, you slay hustle hard grind culture, like all this violent language around productivity. And I’m really wanting to debunk this myth that you have to suffer for your art that you have to suffer to succeed. Yes, you have to work hard, but you also can work hard and taking care of yourself. And that can actually be very gentle and beautiful process. And I think it’s actually really beautiful for me as a black woman, especially when I’m called to like speak in high schools or middle schools or even in colleges or when I do my readings to speak from that place of peace. I’m tired of the suffering mess like I’m, I get so upset, like when I see the lives like Josephine Baker and Nina Simone and like the hell that they went through in their lives because they were not supported.
Connor Franta 34:41
Tiana is really onto something here. Burnout is something that happens inside of your body. But it happens because of huge systemic patterns that are so much bigger than any one person’s individual body. We’re going to get into some of those patterns in the next few episodes, but I can’t do anything about them. If I’m not okay myself, and you too, you can’t do anything to address those larger systems if you’re not okay, first, being okay isn’t a given, it’s something we have to practice, we have to take the time to be okay. Okay, it’s time for some good news. There are as many ways to complete the stress cycle in your body, as there are types of people. And it’s not rocket science. Staying okay can be very simple.
The stuff that keeps your stress managed is you know, getting a good night’s sleep and enough physical activity and, and connecting with your friends, making a thing, achieving a goal, waking up from 10 and a half hours of magnificent sleep. All these things, one of the reasons they feel so good is because they’re completing old built-up stress response cycles. Does that feel like good news?
Connor Franta 35:58
Yeah, sure. But here’s the complicated news. Being okay is not a one and done type of situation. Being okay is a process.
Wellness is the freedom to oscillate through all the cycles of being human, which is going to be in and out of stress, even from the same single source of stress, it’s gonna to come back.
Connor Franta 36:20
Stress is normal. It’s a part of the human experience. And stress is not even necessarily the enemy of being okay. God, here comes the nuance.
Tiana Clark 36:32
There are moments in our lives that do call for a type of intensity. We’ve all had the nights that we stayed up all night, maybe eating chocolate covered espresso beans, when you have a big output, how do you actually value the time where you recover, the time when you rest? I’m learning that if it’s not a Hell, yes, it’s a hell no. And learning to trust my, my yes’ versus my no’s because I think there was a time in my life that I was because I had grown up and lack and I had my identity wrapped around scarcity. I was so afraid of what abundance felt like. So I’m really working hard to have my own way of navigating the success. Actually having this process be something that’s like, beautiful and not destructive. Yes, there’s hard days. Yes, I have moments of confusion. Yes, I doubt myself. But I also remind myself Who the hell I am. And I also have a very good therapist, who helps to remind me of my worthiness and reminds me to take that moment of pause for myself. And so I think those are the moments that I think are crucial for anyone, not just a Black woman. That’s like water, right? The wave goes in and it goes out.
Connor Franta 37:43
Speaking of waves in and out, this is my happy place, the ocean. When I feel anxiety and stress start to creep up in my gut. I know I am long overdue to complete my stress cycle with a run by the beach. So I’ll catch up with you on the other side of the break, where we’ll be talking about scientifically proven ways to be okay.
Valerie Morgan 38:16
I could talk the talk, all natural and homeopathy protein powders, essential oils.
Connor Franta 38:23
We heard from Valerie Morgan at the top of the show. When we spoke with her, she was hospitalized with stress induced diverticulitis, which is a little bit ironic, since her job at the Colorado supermarket chain where she works is to advise customers on how to take good care of themselves.
Valerie Morgan 38:40
I would have the talk about getting away from the stress and don’t engage in things that are chaotic and toxic and go outside, take deep breaths and get fresh air and all of those right things to do.
Connor Franta 38:57
The Wellness Department is her domain. Her job title is actually get this, optimum wellness specialist.
Valerie Morgan 39:05
Natural supplements that you can take that are great stress reducers like Ashwagandha is a bio adaptive herb. So it works on your thyroid on your adrenal system on your serotonin levels and it literally like goes into your body and it balances you out. But this like what I’m going through now supersedes the power of ashwagandha even.
Pooja Lakshmin 39:37
You know, the wellness industry is very slick. You know, they do a really good job of trying to make it seem like here is this one answer.
Connor Franta 39:46
Pooja Lakshmin is a writer and psychiatrist who specializes in women’s mental health. She’s also a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the wellness industry.
Pooja Lakshmin 39:55
Anybody who’s trying to tell you that they have the answer to your problem should raise your spidey senses. Because there is never just one answer.
Connor Franta 40:06
Pooja sees a lot of people looking for wellness in all the wrong places. And I sat down and talked to her about that recently
Pooja Lakshmin 40:14
Crystals are not going to solve our problems. There’s a lot of anxiety in the world right now. And as our external environment becomes more chaotic, we all seek solutions and answers and comfort.
Connor Franta 40:39
Turns out, we both see eye to eye on one thing in particular, wellness is never going to be an off the shelf product. It took me years to actually have breakthroughs in therapy. And nowadays, I go to therapy and I show up with a breakthrough that I’m working on. And I talk through how I’m working on it. It’s not me coming to my therapist with a problem, hoping for a solution. She’s not going to fix my mental health struggles, she’s not going to, you know, figure out for me that like, my depression was caused by my closeted youth, which then caused my anxiety, which then caused eating disorders, like she can’t tell me that I need to figure that out.
Pooja Lakshmin 41:22
It does take a long time. And nobody wants to hear that, you know, it takes a lot of money, it takes privilege, not everybody’s starting from the same place. If you have access to it, it’s something that can be really helpful and one person yoga class actually can be totally nourishing and fill them up another person’s yoga class can be completely performative. So it’s really about the internal process that you’re taking the decision making the learning to set boundaries, the identifying what your values are, and making choices from there.
Connor Franta 41:55
You know what? All those values and choices that build genuine nourishing well-being, there’s a scientific name for that, mindset, which is basically how we think about our own feelings.
Alia Crum 42:09
Mindsets are really lenses through which we’re viewing the world. Our mind our beliefs, our expectations, our mindsets can shape our physical health.
Connor Franta 42:22
Alia Crum is the primary investigator at Stanford University’s Mind Body lab. Talk about job title goals, people Geez. Do you remember the crazy talk we got into before the last break about the mind and the body being one and the same? Well, it’s not so crazy after all. Because mindset research can prove it, scientifically.
Alia Crum 42:46
We gave people the exact same milkshake, but we either told them it was a very high calorie indulgent shape or a low-calorie help shake. Even though they’re consuming the same exact milkshake. When they thought it was indulgent, their bodies responded as if they had more food.
Connor Franta 43:07
If this idea sounds familiar, the idea that your body’s response to something depends on how you think about that thing. It’s because that experiment, and well most of Alia’s work are based on a really old, really familiar idea. The placebo effect can turn a freaking tic tac into a miracle cure. And the placebo effect is not a fringe idea. It’s so completely straight down the middle that for nearly every drug on the market today, real life lab coded scientists have to do clinical trials to prove it’s more than just a tic tac jacked up on the power of good feelings. But Alia Crum was curious, she started pulling at the edges of the placebo effect, seeing how far can really stretch, like if the placebo effect changes how your body responds to medications? Could it also change how it responds to say, stress?
Alia Crum 44:14
So if you have the mindset that stress is debilitating, what we’ve found in our research is that, that mindset can actually make those debilitating outcomes more likely, in part because it changes what we pay attention to what we’re motivated to do, and also how our bodies respond.
Connor Franta 44:34
If you think your stress is killing you, you’re actually making it worse, because you fixate on the damage. And you get stressed about your stress.
Alia Crum 44:44
It adds a layer of discomfort in an already uncomfortable situation. So not only are you dealing with this pandemic or this conflict, but now you’re worried about how that stress is going to affect you. So, last 40 years, we’ve been screaming at people telling them that stress is going to kill them. And stress is bad for them. And you should avoid stress. When the reality is we can’t avoid stress.
Connor Franta 45:12
We can’t avoid stress, but we can shift our mindset so that we’re not stressing out about our stress.
Alia Crum 45:19
You learn and grow from it, you get more resilient, you change things, I asked people to think about a time where they felt like they really grew as an individual. And then I’ll ask them, was that time stressful at all? And everybody says, yes.
Connor Franta 45:39
It’s subtle, right? Stress is normal, maybe even essential. And the difference between harmful stress and helpful stress is being able to float in and out of it freely, it’s possible to acknowledge your stress without buckling in for the full stress ride. Open your arms and embrace the stress, my friends, give it a good hug. But then let it go.
Alia Crum 46:08
When people can be, you know, inspired to adopt the mindset that stress can be enhancing that the experience of going through them can have enhancing outcomes, they feel more positive effects. So feelings of hopefulness, determination and a sense of connection. And they also experience more moderate levels of cortisol.
Connor Franta 46:38
I mean, sure, I’m inspired to embrace stress as my friend. But there’s a wide gap between inspiration and diving full end. It’s not automatic. And it’s tricky. It takes a certain mental space to do that. And these days, mental real estate has gotten very, very, very expensive. It’s one hell of a tight market in here. But what if there was a way to get your hands on a bit more of that precious headspace? What if I told you there is a magic carpenter that could take all that densely packed real estate in your mind, that mind that has absolutely no vacancy for any of this nonsense, and build an entirely new room? Where none existed before? Friends, that magic carpenter is a skill called mindfulness.
Nate Klemp 47:35
Mindfulness is a particular way of attending to the present moment, non-judgmentally. That’s the classic definition.
Connor Franta 47:43
This is Nate Klemp, and no, he’s not a magic carpenter. But maybe he knows a guy. Nate is a writer, philosopher and founding partner at mindful. And I wanted to share notes with him about the carpenter, we both come to know.
Nate Klemp 47:57
Essentially, what we’re doing with a mindfulness practice is we’re creating more space in the mind, and we’re changing our relationship to our thoughts and our emotions.
Connor Franta 48:05
How can mindfulness and being present I guess, help us overcome or in, I guess, avoid burnout.
Nate Klemp 48:15
Mindfulness can almost be a kind of early indicator that we’re on the verge of burnout, we feel that our level of anxiety is rising, or we’re starting to feel more fatigued. But we often don’t take heed of those signs. There’s a way in which we’re not present with what’s actually happening. But then once we’re actually experiencing something like burnout, mindfulness can be really powerful, because it’s a way of dealing with some of the discomfort that we’re experiencing, or some of the stressful thoughts in a different way. So when we practice mindfulness, yes, there’s still anxiety or fear, or any of those underlying symptoms of burnout. But we’re training our ability to dis identify from those to sort of see there’s anxiety versus I am anxious, right to, to just kind of like witness it. And notice that it’s impermanent and it’s always changing, versus getting totally caught up in it swept away by it.
Connor Franta 49:22
Totally. I’ve been recently practicing sort of the human first mentality of like, I am a person with anxiety not I am an anxious person, that there’s a way around that there’s a way to experience anxiety, but to not have it define you or your humaneness.
Nate Klemp 49:39
That’s a huge shift, basically that shift from I am sad to various sadness. It doesn’t sound like it’s that different. But in one case, the sadness is attached to your identity. And in another case, you’re recognizing the ephemeral nature of sadness But it’s there, and then it’s not there. And it’s, it’s just moving through like clouds in the sky.
Connor Franta 50:07
Here’s how that magic carpenter works. She simply opens up a wall, takes you by the hand, and invites you to step into that new opening. And as you look across the threshold, you find that there’s this beautiful space between you, and all your mental activity.
Nate Klemp 50:25
The early Stoic philosophers, they have this insight that it’s not the world that makes you sad, but it’s your thoughts about the world. And so, fast forward 2000 years, there’s all this emerging psychology, mostly in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, where that’s like the central insight that we can reframe our thoughts. And if we’re able to do that, around those thoughts, all of a sudden, we open up this whole new world of possibility. And we’re kind of like training a new skill or a new habit of mental flexibility. Because if you think about when you’re stressed, there’s very little flexibility, it’s more like the mind tunnels into this very limited view. So these are practices that I think of them like yoga for the mind, where you’re expanding the ability of the mind to take in the bigger picture.
Connor Franta 51:17
Here’s the little catch, though, the carpenter is never finished with the project, she needs to come back every day to keep the wall open. And you need to let her in every day to do her work. Because mindfulness is not an event. It’s a practice.
Nate Klemp 51:33
There’s this experience that I have had many times that I think most people have had, I call it the Insight high, where you go to an amazing workshop or retreat, and for the next week or so you feel like you have this totally new way of seeing the world. And then what happens after that is, two weeks later, you go right back to all of your old habits as though the Insight never even happened. Practice is about a daily habit or a way in which we’re reminding ourselves over and over again, to be mindful, or to be more present, or to spend less time on our phone, whatever that might be. The grip of our default habits is so strong, that if we’re just blown away by an insight, it’s not enough, like there has to be practice. Otherwise, we’re just the force of our existing habits is so strong, it’s going to pull us right back.
Connor Franta 52:33
I think the same thing, practice takes time. So I think having a quick moment of inspiration is just not enough. I know that the habits that I’ve formed, that make me a better person, or that make my life easier, frankly, it took years, you have to kind of put your belief in yourself and belief in the process and the practice. And again, a lot of this does have science, so you have to believe science, that it will do you a benefit over time.
Nate Klemp 53:00
I’m also curious for you, Connor, I know that you are deep in the thicket of social media, that’s a lot of what you do. Do you feel like you’ve had to cultivate some of these practices just to withstand the pressures of being in that environment so much?
Connor Franta 53:21
Without a doubt, there are many things that I can get a quick fix on with social media. So it’s sort of allowing myself to, know that that’s a temporary fix to a potentially temporary feeling. I just the other day, my sister, which I consider to be one of the highest compliment said, somehow you’re you might be the best in our family at not being on your phone when we’re around each other. Which doesn’t make any sense. And I’m like, it’s because I have practiced it so hard because it is present in my everyday life. So I either could be the worst or the best. I don’t think I could be somewhere in between. You probably came to this moment already familiar with the word mindfulness. Now you know about the cosmic mental carpentry that goes along with it. But where do you start? How do you invite the carpenter in?
Nate Klemp 54:16
People who are otherwise very skeptical to something like mindfulness are often persuaded when they see, wow, there’s some really amazing benefits. You mind wander less, you increase your focus, your mood can change. You’re less anxious, right? You have a higher tolerance for pain and discomfort. Those are all things that we want. So the science is a big deal. You could also just do this in more integrated ways where it’s like, hey, when I leave my house, I just tried to notice the sounds of the birds for 20 seconds.
Connor Franta 54:50
Totally. I’ll go for like a quick little walk or I tend to go for my runs without my phone or headphones. People say how do you do that? Yeah, I’m like, well, one, it took time to not have to be distracted while I’m exercising and to appreciate the activity itself.
Nate Klemp 55:04
Yeah. And if we can’t give ourselves a momentary break while we’re outside, then when will we ever have that break? If you are able to build a practice that allows you to manage your attention more skillfully, it’s almost like a modern superpower. Right? Like, there are so few people who have that skill. So few people are able to sustain focus, and to cut through this constant stream of distraction. You will be Superman if you develop this skill. Yeah, you can like wear the underwear over your pants and everything.
Connor Franta 55:40
Oh, yeah. Marvel’s gonna want you in their next movie for sure. How are you feeling now? Okay. Little bit, hopefully even excited to try out some of these things we just talked about to nudge yourself out of that burned out category and into the ok category. That’s fantastic. I want that for you. I want you to flaunt your burnout immunity. So excited to see you launch your own mindfulness Marvel Universe. In fact, I’ve got a tub of popcorn right here. All ready for that superhero flick to get rolling, baby. Yep. Any minute now. I’m waiting. What’s the hold up? What’s going on back there? My popcorn is getting cold.
Pooja Lakshmin 56:28
I’m seeing so many more patients coming in and saying like, I’m burnt out. I’m depressed. I’m not sleeping. Well,
Connor Franta 56:35
That’s Pooja Lakshmin, seasoned wellness industry skeptic again. And I
Pooja Lakshmin 56:39
feel like it’s my fault. Because I have a meditation app on my phone that I never use. I never make it to yoga; I don’t keep a gratitude list. So like, clearly, it’s my fault that I can’t pull it together. So it’s like self-care, as our culture has sort of defined it for us, is just another thing on the To Do lists that we all feel guilty about that we’re not doing right. You can’t meditate your way out of a 40-hour workweek with no child care. Right? Like these are systemic issues. We need actual real like we need real health insurance that pays for therapy. Right? We need these real social systems in place and the problem with low self-care is that it exonerates the toxic social systems.
Connor Franta 57:30
I can sense that nuance coming on again. There are so many ways scientifically proven philosopher endorsed ways to take care of yourself, and you’ve got to take care of yourself. But taking care of yourself is just the beginning.
Christina Maslach 57:49
It’s not that if people are burned out, you know, there’s something wrong with them and we have to fix them. If people are burning out. It may be because the kind of environment we’ve created for them is not very friendly and helpful and supportive.
Connor Franta 58:07
You are not the problem Dodo; your environment is but that’s next time.
Connor Franta 58:23
Burnout is a production of Lemonada and Mindful. Rae Solomon, Rachel Lightner and Claire Jones produced this episode with help from Kristen Lepore. Isaura Aceves is our associate producer. Mixing and Sound Design by Rachel Lightner. Music is by Hannis Brown, additional music by APM. Melinda Wright is our story consultant. Our VP of narrative content is Jackie Danziger. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Special shoutouts, to therapists, all the amazing therapists of the world you are doing God’s work. You can find Lemonada on all social platforms at @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me Connor Franta at @ConnorFranta across all social platforms. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium on Apple podcasts. Burnout is created in collaboration with mindful.org. Mindful is a public benefit organization dedicated to sharing the gifts of mindfulness through content, training, courses, and coaching. Visit www.mindful.org/burnout to find a curated collection of Mindfulness Based meditations courses and resources to help you prevent and work through burnout in your life and work. I’m Connor Franta. See you next week.