Preventing Burnout - Introduction
Everyone understands the stress of being alive in today’s current climate. Everyone knows that stress leads to burnout.
Many of you have friends or colleagues that have or are experiencing this. Perhaps you, yourself , are suffering burnout as well. This blog is intended to give you the tools to avoid factors that contribute to burnout. Let’s talk about the 2 skills needed to rise above or avoid the burnout factor.
I was certainly privileged to be trained by masters of a 5000 year old lineage with the science and practices that have kept me alive during my years of doctoral training Hardships included the rigors of study, departmental changes The core of what I learned is that The Energy of the Mind is the Essence of Life. We need to be able to restore ourselves to a place of clarity and resilience where we are able to rise above the complications and troubles that can affect our lives. This is especially important now.
There are two skills that you need to rise above the chaos and master your own life:
1. Have the awareness to recognize the root of the problem and the knowledge to understand the problem in its entirety. In most cases the problem lies in a mind that is scattered, beaten, insulted. Because such a mind leaks energy. In other words, a mind that is unable to hold its energy together results in dissipated energy. This energy loss manifests itself in chemical changes in the brain.
Most problems never exist where they appear to exist. I like to use the example of poison ivy in a garden. You find the leaf in your grass and when you attempt to pull it out, you find a vine with its origin many feet or even yards away from where you pulled it. Weeds work that way. They infiltrate beneath the surface and when you go to pull them, you see a long root chain. Problems mirror this scenario. We have a problem and we think it is a simple issue like not having your favorite food for dinner, when really you are upset because of some prior trauma that revolves around the food table.
2. Restore that which has been depleted from the problem. This requires the knowledge and practices to nourish our organism back to health. One of the most profound practice is working with the breath. I heard it once said, that if you master your breath you master your health and this is actually true. Since, breath is the controlling factor that regulates our nervous system. Without it we die, with it we exist. When it is regulated and trained, we flourish because the function of our brain is strengthened.
So how do we know burnout exists? Science tells us that our brains get affected under stress.
4 Facts to consider:
- Your brain can change. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury. These changes can be self-directed with lifestyle habits.
- This change is measurable with EEG and fMRI scans. These devices tell scientists what is going on with our brain.
- Our thoughts and feelings create new pathways – from subcortical region of the brain (limbic) to CEO of our brain preFrontal Cortex. For example, when we practice focused awareness, out reactive brain quiets and our responding brain steps up to the plate. We call this operating from the top down as opposed to the bottom up.
- For restoring our brain to vital health requires practice. Our brain changes with continual practice. You would never expect to learn to play a new instrument without practice. Changing the happenings in our brain require consistent and systematic training. That is why it is not enough to just talk about meditating, one must practice it.
Burnout is now recognized as a legitimate medical disorder by much of mainstream medicine and has even been given its own ICD-10 code this is a medical code for burn-out state of vital exhaustion. Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.
Neuroimaging studies reveal the metabolic changes in regions of the brain where activity increases or decreases in response to emotional or sensory input.
There are specific and reproducible patterns of changing neural activity and brain structures associated with stress. In the high-stress state, subjects’ scans reveal less activity in the higher, reflective brain and more activity in the lower, reactive brain that directs involuntary behaviors and emotional responses. Prolonged stress correlates with structural increases in the density and speed of the neuron-to-neuron connections in the emotion-driven reactive networks of the lower brain, and corresponding decreased connections in prefrontal cortex conscious control centers.
The explanation of these changes is generally attributed to the brain’s neuroplasticity of “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain literally rewires to be more efficient in conducting information through the circuits that are most frequently activated.
As you internalize your thwarted efforts to achieve your goals and interpret them as personal failure, your self-doubt and stress activate and strengthen your brain’s involuntary, reactive neural networks. As these circuits become the automatic go-to networks, the brain is less successful in problem-solving and emotional control. When problems arise that previously would have been evaluated by the higher brain’s reasoning, the dominant networks in the lower brain usurp control.
Recognize & Restore - look at the science
I thought how am I going to suggest a restorative practice on this blog when there are so many to choose. I went to my scientific literature to see where I could support the practices that I received early on. Breath stood out, loud and clear. Breath is the key to life and living, literally. It is the only autonomic function that we have conscious control over. And breath regulates the connection between the mind and the body via the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus nerve called the wandering nerve is an extensive nerve originating in the brain stem extending all the way to the abdominal region. When we focus on regulating breath we stimulate this nerve and active the relaxation response.
In the Journal of Neuroscience 2016, Nasal Respiration Entrins Humna Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function was clearly a support for what the ancient masters have been saying for thousands of years, “Breathing modulates brain activity and mental Function” .
According to this study it was suggested that the rhythm of breathing co-ordinates electrical activity across a network of brain regions associated with smell, memory, and emotions, and can enhance their functioning. This suggests that breathing is involved in orchestrating complex behaviors. Other findings indicate that breathing modulates emotional recognition and memory recall, with both processes being more accurate during breathing in compared to breathing out. This showed that the route of breathing was especially important because the effects were seen when the participants were asked to breath in through their noses, but their performance on both tasks declined markedly when they breathed through their mouths. Something that I have taught for many years when students suggest to breath out through their mouth. The nose has neurological connections to our nervous system and this must not be overlooked.
We know that breathing is controlled unconsciously by the brainstem, and humans are the only species that have the ability to alter their breathing pattern in response to emotional stimuli and mental effort. Our thoughts and emotions do indeed affect our breathing habit.
So engage in learning to regulate your breath by counting on the inhalation and on the exhalation. Learn to elongate the exhalation. Practice 5 minutes a day by setting your timer and stop what you are doing to tune into your breath.
Zelano, C., et al. (2016). Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates
Cognitive Function. J. Neurosci., 6: 12448 –12467 [Abstract]
The brain can change, this change is measurable and our thinking affects it.
We can address the burnout problem in 2 way: recognize the root of the problem, restore what is lost through practice.
Breath Awareness is one tool that can accomplish both.
Why is this important?
It translates into the body.
In order to cultivate the life that I want; I need to cultivate the mind.
We can cultivate a clear and resilient mind with practice.
Practice on what?
Ultimately, Meditation which starts with the breath.
Meditation practice delivers some benefits to the brain as well as your life
Meditation trains the brain.
We know the brain is Plastic and different parts grow and shrink depending on what we feed our mind through feelings, thoughts and actions.
And mediation grows areas involved in emotion, self- control and resilience. Three things that enhance our comfort and well being.
Health is awareness that flows through every part of the mind body complex. And,
flexibility of mind is essential.
Always remember, the energy of your mind is the essence of life.