Burnout Protection; Try this evidence-based, 3-minute exercise to quickly bring back your vitality —
Work-related burnout has become a major problem throughout the world, and it is especially prevalent among health-care practitioners and entrepreneurs. But what are the most effective ways to prevent and recover from this debilitating situation that has been shown to compromise the cognitive and emotional processes in the brain? Offering evidence-based exercises to enhance personal and professional development has many advantages over the “common-sense” advice featured in popular books and blogs. In fact, an untested strategy that is based on a sound scientific theory is far more likely to be more effective than strategies based on personal (anecdotal) experience.
Take a Break!
Extensive research has demonstrated the consciousness-and-decision-making processes of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and we know from many supportive studies that the longer you stay focused on achieving goals without taking relaxation and pleasure breaks, the more your work quality and performance will decline. Other studies show that excessive stress and burnout is correlated with decreased activity in the empathy/intuition/social-brain circuit, especially in the parietal and anterior cingulate regions. However, our brain-scan studies of meditators, coupled with the extensive research on stress reduction, strongly suggest how specific relaxation and mindfulness studies can be used to alter stress-related activity throughout the brain.
So here is a strategy to protect yourself from burnout and to heal yourself from work-related stress, based on the study above and other peer-reviewed brain-scan experiments:
- The fastest way is to take relaxation break and to fully immerse yourself in any pleasurable activity for 1-3 minutes.
Burnout is caused by too much focusing on achieving goals for extended periods of time. You need to turn down activity in the concentration center of your brain (the DLPC) several times an hour to allow your glial cells to dispose of the stress-related byproducts generated by the neurons in this area. The most effective way to give your DLPF a rest is to enter a trance-like daydreaming state. Research shows that repeating the word “OM” may be the fastest way to do this (other sounds don’t appear to work!) [i].
- Feeling burnt-out?
One of the symptoms is a lack of empathy or interest in social interactions [i]. Research shows that doing compassion meditations (sending yourself love, nurturing kind thoughts for others, immersing yourself in feelings of gratitude, etc.) will increase activity in the parietal/anterior cingulate circuits that regulate empathy, compassion, and self-love.
- Feeling highly irritable?
This too is a symptom of burn-out, and it is correlated with excessive activity and volume in the amygdala and a thinning of the neocortex[i]. Research with Zen meditators (where the “OM” meditation is often used) shows decreased activity/volume in the amygdala and a thickening of the neocortex that controls the majority of our cognitive functions.
Let’s put all these pieces together
Thanks to the neurological power of your imagination to recreate negative memories from the past, you can experience the benefits of this “Burnout Protection” exercise right now. Close your eyes and recall one of the most stressful times you’ve experienced in the last couple of weeks. Allow yourself to feel the tiredness, the frustration, and the emotional exhaustion. Now begin to slowly – VERY SLOWLY – stroke the palms of your hand and your arms in the most pleasurable way possible (you want to cover one inch in 2-4 seconds…that’s what’s required to stimulate the pleasure nerves in this part of your body).
Now take a very slow deep breath in through your mouth, and as you slowly exhale, make the sound of “oooohhhhmmmm,” drawing it out as long as you comfortably can. The “oh” sound will come out first, and as you slowly close your mouth, the “mmm” sound will vibrate your lips. When the sound fades away, take another slow deep breath through your mouth. As you repeat this OM meditation, pay close attention to every nuance of the experience: the resonant sound, the sensations in your chest, throat, and face, and the tonal qualities as you say OM sound in different ways. See if you can actually lose yourself in the sounds and sensations of OM. Go as long as you like, and when your intuition tells you to stop, sit quietly for a few more minutes observing your feelings and thoughts.
Finally, repeat this compassion meditation phrase: “May I be happy, may I be well, may I be filled with love and peace.” Feel free to alter this phrase in any way that you’d like. Immerse yourself in the experience for as long as you like, and then sit quietly, noticing how calm and relaxed you feel. When you go back to concentrating on a specific goal or task, you’ll feel less stress and your productivity and performance will increase. And if we put you into an fMRI scanner as you do this, we are 90% certain that you’ll see the types of neurological changes described in this blog!
PARTIAL LIST OF SOURCES:
[*]Mark R. Waldman, Author of NeuroWisdom, The New Brain Science of Money, Happiness, and Success
[i] Neurohemodynamic correlate of ‘OM’ chanting: A pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Kalyani BG, Venkatasubramanian G, Arasappa R, Rao NP, Kalmady SV, Behere RV, Rao H, Vasudev MK, Gangadhar BN. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jan;4(1):3-6.
[ii] Can we predict burnout severity from empathy-related brain activity? Tei S, Becker C, Kawada R, Fujino J, Jankowski KF, Sugihara G, Murai T, Takahashi H. Transl Psychiatry. 2014 Jun 3;4:e393.
[iii] Structural changes of the brain in relation to occupational stress. Savic I. Cereb Cortex. 2015 Jun;25(6):1554-64.