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Tag: Stress

Burnout Protection; 3-minute exercise to regain vitality

Posted in: October 2, 2021 By: Bernadette Marie Wilson

Burnout Protection; Try this evidence-based, 3-minute exercise to quickly bring back your vitality —

Overcome Burnout

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:

  1. 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].

  1. 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.

  1. 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!


[*]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.

Optimizing Mental Efficiency and Physical Performance During Times of Stress

Posted in: April 26, 2019 By: Bernadette Marie Wilson

Most of us have read numerous articles and studies documenting the damages of stress and burnout. Despite knowing this information, why do we continue to overwork ourselves beyond peak performance levels, only to suffer the damaging results of stress – poor physical and mental health, along with damage to our relationships? 

The answer lies in who we are as humans. It is in our humanity, our need to survive that pushes us to do more. Our brains automatically react to positive and negative stressors, often without our conscious awareness. When we are faced with a tough situation – a demanding boss expecting a project to be delivered on a short timeline, negotiating the waters of an employee conflict, facing the perils of starting a new business, our natural instinct is to work harder and manage competing priorities to manage the immediate stressors. This state is a useful short term tactic.  Our brains and our bodies can endure the neuroendocrine surge for a brief period. However, after a protracted period of stress our brain, and bodies, reach a tipping point of exhaustion.  

Pay attention to signals that indicate your performance tipping point.

Our individual past histories, physical, mental, and cultural conditioning give some of us the ability to endure stressful occurrences longer than others. Many of us have witnessed successful leaders who have mastered techniques to reorganize their thoughts quickly, and who remain calm and focused through negotiation or managing high-risk deals with finesse.  They are amazing highly productive leaders!

Whether one is a highly skilled leader or still learning foundational self-management skills, if left unchecked our natural responses to stress can get the best of us. Without self-awareness, overtime we can suffer symptoms of fatigue and burnout. Our physical health, mental performance, and relationships can suffer from the fallout of these prolonged periods of stress. 

I am not professing to avoid hard work. It is in this hard work that we find success. However, if you are driven to work for too long a period of time, burnout will begin.  When our life choices or conditions require us to enter a high-performance state, taking intermittent breaks will help rejuvenate the brain and allow one to return to the task with increased vigor, creativity, and determination.

How do you know when you hit the point where a break is beneficial? 

Three things are essential to achieve anything worthwhile: Hard work, persistence, and common sense.” – Thomas A. Edison

As stated by Thomas Edison – “common sense.” When feelings such as fear, anger, boredom begin to dominate your thoughts or manifest in physical symptoms that interrupt your productivity.  Set a timer and take a break every hour or notice when strong emotions begin to surface. The goal is to recognize these feelings early and often as they occur, then take a pleasurable break –take a short walk, stretch for a few moments, and breathe!  

Using Stress to Your Advantage

Stress is needed and can be a positive driver. We use stress to motivate us to perform, to kick start our brain’s neurological drive system. When we perceive a stressor, our system releases hormones including cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine. These hormones send neurological signals that increase blood pressure and our heart rate and kick start our drive.

Recall a recent time when you had to give a presentation in front of a group.  Most likely before you gave the speech you experienced a physical change in your breathing and perhaps had the twinge of butterflies. Your mind was focused on your speech and the audience (vs thinking about your next meeting of the day). Furthermore, to avoid feelings of nervousness and embarrassment, you did the “work” of preparation beforehand.  The thought of a stressful situation motivated you to reach your potential. 

We also use stress to keep us enthusiastic about reaching the finish line of our goals.  A good practice is to set multiple, short term,  achievable milestones.  As we strive for a goal that is in near sight we have some level of stress, but it is manageable.  Once we reach the milestone, we are rewarded. Upon success, we are flooded with natural feel-good hormones, neurochemicals, and neurotransmitters (i.e., endorphins, dopamine,  serotonin, and oxytocin.). 

Implementing habits such a mindful practice, taking small pleasure breaks through the day, and setting reward milestones will provide the needed edge on stress. Knowing when we are approaching a critical mass, i.e. “tipping point” in our work and life stressors is crucial to deploying corrective actions that will lead to optimizing our physical and mental health and overall cognitive performance.  

Relaxing techniques and habits such as a consistent mediation practice, deep breathing, or placing yourself into states of gratitude and positivity can help your brain to reorganize and reenter a state of calm and rejuvenation.  

Turn off the Worry Switch!

Posted in: February 27, 2018 By: Bernadette Marie Wilson

Brain Science and Worry —

The brain is the most complex and complicated organ in your body – with over 160 billion living organisms (neurons and glial cells). Your complex brain is motivated by pleasure. If a project, a job, a relationship or any other activity that promises a future reward, your brain is to stimulate to capture this pleasure as long as it appears to be achievable.

Here’s the catch­, if it experiences pain – physical, mental or emotional, the deepest part of our brain (i.e. nucleus accumbens) activity lessens. Even is the pain being from a past memory, worry and frustrations can set in and stall us from performing or completing the desired project.

Who Worries?

We all worry to some degree. Worrying can also be a condition that is culturally acceptable and habitual. For some of us, we’ve been a condition to worrying.  We may be concerned for other’s well-being over ours and unnecessarily “think” too often about other’s lives, then try to offer input and advice – in effect, try to control something that we cannot change. Thus, we fret and worry.

Worrying can stop you in your tracks. Worrying is a form of mental stress, and 90% of your uncertainties and doubts are based on fantasies and memories from the past. If you get in a cycle of rumination, the brain will respond to those worries – as if they are actual threats in the world. Worrying is unpleasant and it will, over time, push you into depression which means your motivation centers have shut down.

Turn off the Worry Switch!

Take action! When my clients are stuck in worry, I recommend they make of list of 3 things they can do today that moves them one step closer to their goal.  The list can be comprised of simple tasks that are fairly easy to accomplish. Actions such as going to the gym, taking a 20-minutes mindful meditative walk, or writing down a lit all of their successes and they appreciate what they have accomplished help you to get unstuck and the brain to shift.  Doing something – anything – that will bring you’re a sense of pleasure and that focusing on the potential of success turns back on the motivation centers in your brain.

But if you’ve been stuck for a long time, you’ll have to “oil” that motivation machine by asking for support from friends, colleagues, coaches, and mentors. You have to learn how to become a knowing that there is always something you can do today, right now, to bring a little more pleasure into your life!

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