How do we deal with burnout? – with The Stress Code author Richard Sutton

How do we deal with burnout? – with The Stress Code author Richard Sutton

by Suswati Basu

It’s stress awareness month, and apparently there’s been a severe increase in mental health issues due to COVID-19 so dealing with stress is more important than ever before. Hence this podcast episode is a two-parter and we’ll be delving into more books on this subject to try and help.

So how do we deal with stress?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Richard Sutton, author of The Stress Code and health and performance consultant. Here is the full interview:

Juggy Sidhu, the Indian Body Coach

Easyoga Founder and Yoga Instructor Gemma Nice

Naturopath, herbalist, and yoga teacher Siobhan Carroll

Blooming Fabulous Media and Voice FM presenter, and holistic psychotherapist Margaret Bligdon-Boyt

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Dr Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski promoting Burnout for Penguin Books UK:

Books looked at this week:

Richard Sutton: The Stress Code: From Surviving to Thriving : a Scientific Model for Stress Resilience

Dr Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski: Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 22 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you

It’s stress awareness month, and personally dealing with a relapse from a health condition has been pretty stressful. And in a wider sense, apparently there’s been a severe increase in mental health issues due to covid so dealing with stress is more important than ever before. Hence this podcast episode is a two-parter and we’ll be delving into more books on this subject to try and help.

So how do we deal with stress?

Here is Juggy Sidhu, the Indian Body Coach, on what he thinks of stress.


Our first book is from Richard Sutton, a health and performance consultant, who has advised top athletes, Olympic teams, and international sports federations on pain management and athletic development. He also consults to leading corporations on developing stress resilience and is the author of the book The Stress Code: From Surviving to Thriving : a Scientific Model for Stress Resilience.

Sutton was kind enough to share some of his time with me this week. Watch the full interview on


The Stress Code explores the role that stress plays in our everyday lives. In the short term, heightened levels of stress cause anxiety, weight gain, and decreased cognitive performance. In the long term, stress can lead to heart attacks, strokes, autoimmune diseases – and has even been linked to premature mortality. 

However, small doses of stress can work in our favor, too. The biological responses we have to stressful moments – where our hearts thump in our chest and adrenaline courses through our veins – are what keep us on our toes during a job interview, or what help us find solutions in chaotic circumstances. So instead of completely avoiding it, it’s about harnessing it.

Sutton says our fast-paced world and hunger for success are increasing our stress levels. Our physical and mental well-being depends on our ability to establish balance in our lives. If we’re balanced, we’re able to move easily between states of arousal and regeneration – or, activity and rest. But being constantly connected via technology makes it harder for us to defend our free time. And our admiration of success and an intolerance of failure is fast becoming the norm in our society.

The bad news is that it’s only getting worse. According to a study completed by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles, the average person in developed society experiences between four and five episodes of stress every week. That’s why learning to manage stress – and even to harness it for our benefit – is crucial.

Sutton says feeling out of control is the reason why you’re stressed at work. Hence reducing stress in the workplace benefits everyone. It boosts the health and happiness of employees, enhances productivity, and improves overall business performance.

In moments of extreme danger, our bodies learned to issue a stress response – a biological mechanism that could rally the major systems of the body together to protect us from harm. 

The stress response does a number of things: it releases energy, enhances muscle power, boosts mental acuity, and even promotes pain resistance. It’s one of the main reasons why humans have been able to survive all these years. 

Our bodies’ stress response is divided into two waves. One rapidly activates the sympathetic nervous system and releases the adrenaline hormone. This rapidly activates the sympathetic nervous system and releases the adrenaline hormone.

Then comes the second wave of the stress response, where the surge in adrenaline triggers your adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This hormone helps to regulate the immune system’s function by balancing out the effect of adrenaline. Without cortisol, our immune system would become overactive, and harmful to the body as a result.

The thing is, activating the stress response can be great in the short term, but in the long term, it can be damaging to our health. This is because cortisol and adrenaline – which are released into the bloodstream when our bodies detect a threat – can be toxic to the body in high amounts.

And in the end chronic stress is having a profound impact on our long-term health. This is when stress is present for months and years. However, scientists also believe that acute stress – that  is, stress experienced in the short term – can be positive. It can help us adapt to change, take risks, and find solutions in challenging circumstances.

Sutton believes like an athlete, you can learn to manage stress with a holistic approach. Athletes have a remarkable resilience to ongoing life challenges and chronic stress for a number of reasons. For starters, they’re trained to see stress as a positive experience – a healthy dose of pressure that can spur them on to succeed. They’re also taught to channel stress in a healthy way by reaching out to their network of coaches, trainers, and sport psychologists for support. 

When it comes to managing physical stress, diet and exercise naturally play a role. An athlete’s nutritional intake is designed to promote recovery, reduce inflammation, and provide energy. That’s why they consume the best foods and limit their intake of caffeine and alcohol. They also follow relaxation protocols like yoga, meditation, and breathing. It’s no surprise that they have longer lifespans and less risk of disease.

Well, you might not have time to get a weekly massage, or cook up healthy meals every day, but simply tidying up your diet and taking time to relax can work wonders.

Scientists have proven that when a stressful event is combined with the perception that stress is bad for your health, it increases the risk of premature mortality by 43 percent. Basically, worrying that stress is bad for you simply makes you more stressed. So think about bad experiences as learning opportunities.

Sutton says activating the vagus nerve can help you shut down your stress response. The vagus nerve happens to be one of the longest and most influential nerves in the body. It travels from the top of the skull behind the ears, all the way through the front of the chest, and down toward the abdomen. It helps our brains communicate with our organs – like the heart and lungs – and other systems, like the digestive tract. But it can also calm the body after a fight-or-flight state caused by adrenaline. 

One of the main ways that you can stimulate the healthy function of the vagus nerve is through controlled breathing exercises but also meditation, yoga, swimming, and even listening to calming music. Food, exercise, and being outdoors can help you maintain healthy levels of stress. the diet side of things, he recommends limiting coffee and alcohol, as both elevate cortisol and stimulate adrenaline. 

He also recommends consuming green tea and cocoa. Not only do they stabilize the stress response, but they also strengthen and protect the three systems most impacted by chronic stress: immune, nervous, and cardiovascular.

Even taking a 10-20 minute walk outside can be beneficial for the body – especially if it’s sunny. Moderate sunlight exposure has been proven to beat the blues and boost the immune system.

Our next book comes from Dr Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski. Dr Nagoski works at Smith College in Massachusetts as the director of wellness education after receiving her PhD in health behavior while her identical twin Amelia Nagoski is a professor of music and looks into the connection between art and science. Together they wrote Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Here is their promo for Penguin Books UK:


The book offers women a practical look at the causes of their everyday stress and anxiety and the different ways in which science can help.

The Nagoskis say when it feels like you’re constantly trying to meet your own demands and expectations and those of your job, family and friends, you can easily slip from benign tiredness to stress, anxiety and emotional exhaustion.

Emotional exhaustion happens after you’ve spent too much time caring too much. It is the first of three components identified by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975 in his clinical definition of burnout.

Second is depersonalization, which is when you find your capacity for compassion, empathy and caring dwindles.

The third component of burnout is a decreased sense of accomplishment. In other words, that feeling of “nothing I do matters.” These tend to happen when you feel stuck in stress mode.

Back when our stress-response system evolved, we needed to run for our lives a lot more often than we do now. So the stress cycle starts by releasing the hormone epinephrine to push blood into the muscles. As a result, your blood pressure and heart rate go up, your muscles tense and your breathing quickens. Meanwhile, to make sure you can run away from that theoretical charging rhino, other body functions like growth, digestion, reproduction and immunity are all slowed down. So if the emotion of stress never ends the danger is clear. And you end up with various chronic issues.

All of this means one thing: you need to close the stress cycle as often as possible. Since stress is about running for your life, the natural happy ending to this cycle is running or exercise in general is a great way to close out a stress cycle. Doing this for 20 to 60 minutes will help shift your mood, help muscles relax, and help you breathe deeply apparently.

Creative expression, be it painting, music, theater or sculpting, can also result in a satisfying closure to a stress cycle, as can positive social interactions that signal your return to safety.

They also recommend managing frustration through positive re-appraisal and planful problem solving through scheduling daily activities that close out the stress cycle, like going to the gym, or analyzing a frustrating situation and coming up with a way to solve it or lessen frustration.

The scientific reason for many of our frustrations lies in what’s known as the Monitor, which also goes by the more scientific names of discrepancy-reducing/-increasing feedback loop or criterion velocity. The Monitor is a mechanism of the brain that constantly assesses our current situation and our future plans while keeping a ratio of how much effort it’s going to take to get there along with how much progress we’re making. So being aware of this may help you formulate plans to reduce frustration.

As a woman, the Nagoskis also say the game is rigged, and that’s mostly due to living under a patriarchy. It basically sets up women to fail, so being aware of this, ie. Unrealistic expectations regarding body size, being superwoman and doing it all, allows us to see that stress can be part of a wider context at times.

In many societies, women suffer from Human Giver Syndrome. They have been raised to fall into the human giver role rather than tend to their own needs or seek their own meaning. But this is not reality. So they say don’t punish yourself or let others punish you for what deem a failure.

They also say needing people isn’t a sign of weakness. We aren’t going to function at our best when we’re constantly lonely and isolated or when we’re constantly surrounded by others. We need both. Sometimes it takes a friend or partner to help you find compassion and love toward yourself.

Science tells us that what really makes us stronger is rest and sleep. If you want to do quality work, studies show that you should rest between tasks.

And when you’re sleeping, your body undergoes all kinds of bone, muscle and blood vessel repairs. This means that the benefits of any physical exercise you did during the day are really taking place while you sleep. The same is true for mental activity. Sleep is the time when all the new information you learned during the day can be consolidated and stored properly in memory.

The authors also mention benign self-criticism can help you be more detail-oriented, but it can quickly slip into toxicity when it keeps you from doing anything. They refer to this as the inner madwoman. One of the best strategies they suggest for quietening this voice is to create a vivid image of your madwoman. You can even name her. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to see yourself as being apart from this toxic voice and that you don’t need to listen to her admonishments. And once you have your self-critical voice under control, it becomes easier to practice self-compassion.

So to sum up:

Sutton says in The Stress Code that Stress is unavoidable, but there are practical ways to manage it. Making incremental changes to your lifestyle, learning to shut down your stress response, and taking more time for yourself can help you build up your stress resilience. However, to be successful in managing your stress levels, you’ll need to shift your perspective of what stress is. Instead of viewing it as a negative thing, think of it as a positive experience that can help you reach your goals.

So he recommends creating a stress-resilience action plan.

Making big changes in our lives can often feel overwhelming. To keep yourself accountable, try designing your own action plan that includes the steps you want to take to ease your stress. Start small by reminding yourself to take a walk for 20 minutes a day, or cook a meal using stress-busting ingredients. You could even try checking in with a loved one once a week to download your stress – and lend a friendly ear to them, too.

And in Burnout, the Nagoskis say there are many complex and specific reasons why women are facing burnout these days. We don’t have regular ways of closing out the stress cycle brought on by our jobs and day-to-day lives. Fortunately, this can be done through exercise, creativity and affection. It’s also important to acknowledge that we live in an unbalanced society that discriminates against women and that the health and beauty industries place undue pressure on women. By recognizing these factors and striking back against our self-critical voices, we can begin to defeat the patriarchy and be our best selves through self-compassion and focusing on following our own dreams.

If you hate exercising, they recommend these stationary stress relievers.

If you have chronic pain or illness or simply loathe exercise with all your being, there are some alternatives. First is a deep-breathing exercise that involves taking slow deep breaths that contract your stomach at the end of the exhale. Start by breathing in for a slow five seconds, holding that breath for five seconds and then breathing out for a slow ten seconds. Pause for five seconds between each cycle and repeat three times.

The second exercise is to tense every muscle in your body one by one for a slow count of ten seconds and then release. The beauty of these is that you can do them sitting, lying down or just about anywhere to close a stress cycle.

I’ve been trying out the Loving Kindness meditation, suggested by Richard Sutton after we spoke this week. It’s incredibly pleasant and has been making me feel very content afterwards.

On that note, here is Easyoga Founder and Yoga Instructor Gemma Nice, naturopath, herbalist, and yoga teacher Siobhan Carroll, and Blooming Fabulous Media and Voice FM presenter Margaret Bligdon-Boyt signing us off. And if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe!


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