This is the second part of my article about How to Overcome Burnout. You can read Part One here, where we discuss five important interventions that anybody can use to recover from burnout while remaining engaged in day to day life.
In this second part we are going to focus on the hugely important, and often overlooked, distinction between stress for men and women. From a very simple biochemical perspective, stress and burnout has to do with the secretion of stress hormones into the bloodstream from the adrenal gland. For both men and women, we experience symptoms of stress when the secretion of adrenalin and cortisol into the bloodstream is not neutralized by the secretion of other hormones.
For both men and women, we secrete adrenalin and cortisol when we experience “fight or flight.” That means when you have a deadline that seems difficult to meet, or too many people needing a piece of you all at the same time, or the experience of conflict or being dominated in any kind of relationship, the body secretes stress hormones. This is actually a good thing: it motivates you either to run away and protect yourself, or to face the danger with an increased feeling of courage and power.
Back in the day, when we lived closer to the land in caves or teepees, adrenalin and cortisol would literally cause you to either run very fast away from a physical danger or to turn towards it and fight. Our bodies have not changed very much in the last few hundred years, but our circumstances certainly have. We still secrete the same hormones into the bloodstream but it is no longer appropriate to literally run very fast or to get into a physical altercation when you are faced with a deadline at work. So these stress hormones remain in the bloodstream, causing us to feel frequently or continuously stressed, instead of as a temporary experience. Hanging out in that way for long enough creates burnout.
Here’s the vitally important distinction which is not always adequately understood. Men and women balance stress hormones in a different way. Men balance stress through the secretion of testosterone, and we will talk in a moment about how to manage testosterone production, storage and release. Women, on the other hand, also have testosterone but only about 1/30th as much as men do. They primarily balance stress through secretion of oxytocin, which is not only created by different glands in the body, but it requires completely different kinds of activities to release oxytocin.
As a result, we can start to understand that skillful ways to reduce stress and avoid burnout for men and women are actually very different.
Stress Reduction for Him
For men, testosterone can be released into the bloodstream to neutralize stress through taking care of three distinct necessary stages.One is replenishing testosterone reserve. The second is allowing for adequate testosterone storage. The third has to do with releasing testosterone into the bloodstream.
The best way for a man to learn to create testosterone is through sitting still, preferably with a straight spine, in a way that is alert and at the same time restful. Hence, taking a nap, for a man is not as effective in the long term (as a daily habit) as affording himself the same rest with alertness (commonly known as “meditation”). Again, back in the day, after being “at work” hunting boar and other wild animals, men would return to squat by the campfire in the darkness; clubs by their side and stare for hours, without speaking, into the flames. Whenever a man is still and alert in this way, he gives his body the opportunity to replenish testosterone reserves. The celebrated expert on the topic, my good friend John Grey, calls this “cave time.” Every man needs to structure into his day time when he is alone and still. This could involve meditation or Chi Kung, but it could just as easily involve sitting in his favorite chair and watching a sports game.
The second phase for any man to be attentive to, in avoiding burnout, has to do with testosterone storage. Testosterone is stored in the muscles: the more you build up muscle mass, the more your body has a capacity to store testosterone and the more you have a buffer against burnout. You can do all the testosterone production you like, through meditation and other means, but if your body does not have a way to store it, it is not going to do you so much good. Going to the gym and lifting weights is an obvious way to increase muscle mass but actually there are many other sporting activities, including yoga and Chi Kung, which will build muscle as well.
The third important habit for a man to integrate, in order to have adequate testosterone in his bloodstream to balance stress hormones, is through setting and meeting realistic goals. If a man can set goals for the day or the week and actually achieve them, he not only releases testosterone into the bloodstream to get those tasks done, but he also releases dopamine in the brain when the task is completed, which gives him the pleasurable feeling of a job well done and rewarded. So men actually reduce stress through carefully managing and structuring their time and crossing things off on the To Do list.
Stress Reduction for Her
As we mentioned above, women also have testosterone, but only about one thirtieth as much as men. Women primarily reduce stress through the release of oxytocin. Commonly known as the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin is both created and released through pleasurable relational activity, and through the possibility to feel feelings without a reason.
A study done at UCLA in the late 1990’s showed that when a group of women simply get together for lunch, enjoy some good food and maybe a glass of wine and talk about their relationships, their feelings, or movies they have recently seen: in fact, just about anything other than work related topics, their oxytocin levels are shown to dramatically increase within an hour.
Any time that a woman gets together with other women to chat and talk, she will release oxytocin and release stress. Women also increase oxytocin levels through the experience of color, texture and shape. Many of my female clients are a little shocked, sometimes relieved as well, when I tell them that shopping can be a spiritual practice. When women go to a department store like Macys or Nordstrom it does not have to be to accomplish any predetermined task. Just looking at the colors, smelling smells, seeing how things go together, feeling the texture of a fabric, releases oxytocin and neutralizes stress hormones.
Another great practice for women to reduce stress is free form dance. A good example would be the five rhythms work developed by Gabrielle Roth. When a woman is able to express feelings through her body, without the need for any story, she also quickly neutralizes stress.
Obviously everything I have said here in this article runs the risk of being offensive to some people. We have lived so long with sexual stereotypes: exaggerated unnecessary pigeonholes of how a man and a woman should behave, that many people resent having those distinctions exaggerated. That is not my intention here. I like to encourage every coaching client to experiment freely with a range of practices to see what works best for them. Of course, women can also benefit from sitting still and meditation or going to the gym, and men can also benefit from going shopping or free form dance. I think it’s simply a great idea to have an understanding of the biochemistry involved so that you can make more informed choices.
I have worked with so many people, both men and women, who are having difficulty getting out of burnout simply because they were using practices that were having little to no effect for them, although they were working great for other people. The most obvious example has been women who meditate regularly and religiously for decades, but don’t get the benefits they were hoping for. One of the best examples is Sherry Anderson, whose story I referred to in my book The Translucent Revolution. In just the same way I have worked with men who have tried to reduce stress by releasing all commitments, free flowing through life and dancing a lot. They often became more feminine and soft, but even the small provocation could easily cause them to feel stressed and overwhelmed again, because they have used inappropriate practices.
True freedom for all of us means to have deep understanding of your true nature, of your body, and of your particular character type, and to be able to choose the right practice for you without any restraint or precondition.