Beating Burnout and the Stress Cycle

An Interview with Conductor Amelia Nagoski

Sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski are the authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, a book that explores how we experience stress physically, mentally, and emotionally, and what strategies we can use to process it, both inside and out. In exploring this topic, the sisters bring to bear their own perspectives, Emily as a researcher with a PhD in health behavior and Amelia as a choral conductor.

After the Nagoskis’ plenary presentation during Chorus America’s Winter Conference, Amelia Nagoski spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney. They discussed Amelia’s own journey with stress during her musical training, what it means to express yourself as a conductor and a singer, and how choruses can be part of the ultimate cure for burnout.


Catherine Dehoney (CD): Can you tell us the origin story of Burnout? I know that you and Emily came to write this book in part because of your experience and training as a musician.

Amelia Nagoski (AN): In the eighth grade, I would stand in my dad's record room staying in front of a mirror waving my arms to—I'm embarrassed to admit this—Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, over and over. Something about that action called to me, and I decided I was going to be a conductor. Fast forward 25-ish years and I have followed my plan, but in the meantime I have encountered the sexism, discrimination, and even misogyny that can be part of the conducting world. I've seen how top-heavy it is with men and how women can get trapped at a lower level of prestige.

During my doctorate of conducting program, it really came to a head. My interaction with sexism in classical music and my being a woman and wanting to embrace that as a strength clashed and turned into physical disease in my body. And I ended up in the hospital.

Lucky for me, I have an identical twin sister with a PhD in public health. She brought me a big stack of books and peer-reviewed journal articles that explained how stress affects your body. It was really scary, because I hadn’t known that until then, and there were a lot of emotions in my body that I had been ignoring.

At the same time that this was happening to me, Emily was doing author events for her first book, Come as You Are, about the science of women's sexuality. After the talks, women would come up to her and want to talk about the short half-a-chapter in the book about stress and feelings. She was surprised, but when she told me about it, I reminded her that research she shared with me had saved my life and kept me from being hospitalized. And she said we should write a book about that.

CD: In your plenary, you and Emily walked us through the typical stress response cycle (see addendum below). Where in this cycle do we typically get stuck, and why? Are we still running from the lion, even if the lion isn't there?

AN: It’s actually before that. When a stressor comes, our body responds, and then step three is supposed to be running. Unfortunately, in the present day, most of our stressors cannot be resolved through fight or flight or the things that our body is programmed to do. So we still have the physiological response, but the way we eliminate our stressors now is by doing things like standing in line, filling out forms, and paying our taxes. We are not doing anything to address the stress that happens in our body or to tell our body that it has reached a safe space, so that we can get to the end of the cycle and feel calm.

Most of us are taught that how you handle stress is by getting rid of the things that cause your stress. We’re told that the way to manage your stress is time management and making lists and organization. We’re told that if we manage the things that cause our stress that we won't have stress anymore, and that is a lie. It is not based on science.

What actually happens is our body receives stress and it only has access to a very limited range of responses. The stress response is made of chemicals and electricity and that's all going to go somewhere. If we don't give it a place to go, it's going to get trapped in our muscles and in our joints and cause inflammation and illness.

CD: You and Emily shared a number of things that we can do to complete the stress-response cycle: physical activity, sleep, affection, crying, laughing, and more. Out of these many strategies, do you have any favorites?

AN: Probably my top number-one favorite is imagination. I learned from all this research that if your hands are shaking and your palms are sweating because you're going on a first date—or for no reason at all, just some kind of existential dread—that is your imagination initiating a stress response cycle. That's good news because if your imagination can initiate a stress response cycle, it means your imagination can complete that cycle. When you're reading a book, when you're watching a movie, if you're participating emotionally in anything that's not happening in real life, that's your imagination leading you through a stress response cycle.

Running through rehearsals and getting to know and analyze scores and pieces of music is an emotional journey for me. I am led by a composer through struggle and conflict and dissonance and resolution. That is so satisfying, and it feels so good to get to the end of the full piece of music. Even more gratifying, of course, is making it happen—being engaged with other people who work as a team to create that experience. That's a blend of imagination and also creative self-expression, but they're very closely associated.

CD:  As a conductor, you help lead other people to your vision of the piece but also, hopefully, a collective vision of the piece. You’ve said that that didn’t always come naturally to you. How did you make that connection?

AN: By the time I had taught for maybe three or four years—conducting choirs every day during that time—I knew there was still something missing.

So I went back to grad school at Westminster Choir College. That place, of course, is quite special in the attitude it has towards personal exploration as a means of reaching higher-quality performance. In that context, I had 16 months of being held in a bubble where professors prioritized connecting with my emotions and learning who I am in order to make me a better performer. I learned how to be a person on the podium long before I learned to do it in real life.

What it means for my conducting is that I feel so natural and easy on the podium. You can't just 100 percent be yourself on the podium—you have to carve out a little piece of yourself to put up there—but now I feel like that piece of me is a core instead of a slice. It’s a representation of every part of me. The next step was me coming to understand that I could present that whole self to the world and use that in order to connect to other people's humanity. I learned that in choir.

CD:  Now as a professor, how do you share that with your singers and your conducting students?

AN: I tell them that when you are conducting and when you are singing, this is an act of expressing a part of yourself. Singing is your attitude and your subconscious pouring out into something physical, and that's what conducting is too.

You may be doing a Bach cantata that has been performed a bazillion times, but it really matters that you connect to what feels true for you. You’re combining a piece of yourself with a piece of Bach and putting it out into the world. When people see it, it will feel as good to them as it does to you.

I tell them that when you sing, you are not just following the rules and doing what’s on the page. “Typing” is what I call it when you are just doing the physical task of making noise with your voice without thinking about the overall product. Be sure that you are not just typing but that you are actually creating.

What happens when you create is you're taking a part of yourself and emptying it out of yourself into the world. That is stress management. It's one of the reasons singing is physically good for you and mentally good for you. It's why, when you come to rehearsal, you don't want to be there because you really have a lot to do, but an hour and a half later, you walk out so refreshed and ready to do whatever is next.

CD: That is just so true. One thing I’ve realized is that my stress goes right to my vocal cords. When I'm stressed, they shut down in a way that even vocal fatigue doesn't make them do. I can't sing through it!

AN: True. My secret is that the reason I focus on stress is that it's good for my students, but I also do it because it makes the performance better. More educated, more nuanced, more raw, more true. It’s my secret weapon.

CD: Well, that brings me to another question. We are all deprived of our secret weapon against stress at the moment—we can’t sing right now, at least not in the way that we’re used to. What do you suggest to singers who are struggling with that?

AN: The first thing to do is to acknowledge that it is a loss and to grieve. We need to recognize that we're all wounded and hurting and allow that to heal.

And then the next thing is to keep singing anyway. This is an opportunity for growth, actually. Most challenges are—which I hate to say because it sounds so trite—but it’s literally true, and there’s research that says so.

Use this as an opportunity to reclaim our biological evolutionary birthright that is singing. At the same time that humans were learning to cook and hunt, the very origins of human society were built around singing and dancing together.

As human beings, we deserve to sing, no matter what our voice sounds like, no matter what the circumstances are. So maybe during this time, when you can't have the experience of singing together because it's not safe yet, you could make this other kind of progress. You could really start to get comfortable with the idea that singing is more than just going to rehearsal and following the rules and fitting in with the other people. Instead it’s about connecting with something really ancient about your humanity.

And then be patient and recognize that when things are hard, they are worth it.

CD: You and Emily made a point in your session that I really loved: that the cure for burnout is not self-care, but all of us taking care of each other. How are choruses already part of this solution? And how could they do more in terms of creating that community both within the chorus and externally?

AN: We have already created these communities of tightly knit, loving, intertwined individuals who feel passionately about their choir family. In a large-scale systemic way, people who are unlike the people in power get disenfranchised, but when we sing in a choir, we learn that no matter our race or religion or gender, all that matters is that we bond. It’s an opportunity to for us to learn that a wider variety of people than we had thought are actually members of our tribe.

So we've expanded who we think is in our tribe because we've sung with people who are different from us. And then we go out in the world, and we're capable of loving and seeing and caring for people who are different from us. That gives us a chance to help support calls for change. We see that someone who is deserving of love and care is not getting it from the government, or from certain employers, and we want to take action.

On a more specific individual level, when you sing and are part of a choir, you're getting in touch with your inner experience. And that gives you the opportunity to be more comfortable and to feel more safe. That helps you get into a psychological and emotional space, where, when you learn about something you did wrong, something you did that might have been racist or misogynistic or ableist, that you're in a place where you're going to be able to absorb that and apologize, as appropriate, and learn and grow, rather than feeling like you have to lash out or defend yourself.

Making music together is not just about the music. It’s about the fact that we make it with these people, and they become some of the most important people we’ve ever known. And I would say that we have a responsibility to make sure that our rehearsals give our singers that chance to feel connected, no matter what.

The Stress Response Cycle

During a plenary at Chorus America’s Winter Conference, Emily Nagoski summarized the stress response cycle.

Stress is a physiological process with a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like all of our physiological processes. If you do not get all the way to the end, some not-so-good things can happen. Our goal is to move all the way through the process and not get stuck in the middle.

The stress response cycle begins with your brain noticing a potential threat in the environment. In the environment where humans evolved, this could be a lion or a hippo coming at you. If you're being chased by hippos coming right for you, what do you do? You run! You perceive the threat and within less than a second, your adrenaline level increases, your cortisol level increases, your heart rate increases, your respiration rate increases, your digestion changes, your immune system changes, your reproductive hormones change—every system in your body is affected to prepare you to do the running. And so you run.

Let's imagine a world where you manage to run all the way back to your village. The hippo gets tired, and it gives up and wanders away, and you watch it wander away. Everyone around you has come out, and you realize that you're safe. You celebrate, and you feel glad to be alive, and you love your friends and family, and the sun seems to shine brighter. That is the complete stress response cycle.