Living during the time of a pandemic with worldly tensions around every corner, combined with constant societal pressure to be pushing, achieving, and being productive, and there’s no mystery why so many are teetering on the edge of burnout. Stress is a part of life; it is certainly not going away, and in order to thrive, we need to weather the storms. It is critical we learn ways to keep our nervous systems resilient so we can continue to “bounce back”, and yoga’s ability to improve nervous system flexibility can help manage chronic stress and even prevent burnout.
Chronic Stress & Burnout
Some of us are so used to being chronically stressed that our systems barely remember or know what it feels like to be restored and relaxed. Signs you are dealing with chronic stress are not being able to relax, finding it difficult to switch off from thinking or doing, irregular/rapid heart rate, panic attacks, insomnia, frequent bursts of irritation, rapid/shallow breathing, digestion problems, aches and pains from tense muscles and extreme tiredness.
It’s a very fine tipping point from chronic stress to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It could be the compounding effect of one thing after another or it can be one big event like taking care of a sick loved one or losing a job or home. Burnout happens as a result of a complete overwhelm to the nervous system; it’s when our bodies literally force us to stop doing by shutting us down. In burnout, your nervous system shifts to a state of “freeze” (see dorsal vagal pathway in the polyvagal theory), which presents with symptoms of feeling frozen, numb, void of emotion, and having no motivation or energy.
Unfortunately, when dealing with high stress, we often make unhealthy lifestyle choices which heighten our risk for burnout, e.g. poor diet, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, no exercise, and numbing out or “leaving the body” by scrolling or binging on media. Unfortunately, these habits create a pattern where we are not replenishing our systems, nor are we processing anything – there is no emotional discharge, and our experiences can get stuck in the physical body.
We can interrupt and counteract this accumulation of internalized stress through yoga. Plenty of research is underway to understand this relationship better. The current research focusing on stress and burnout in healthcare workers, shows yoga is effective in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues, and in subjects who practiced yoga and mind-body meditation, sleep is improved and stress levels and burnout are consistently reduced. The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review (nih.gov).
Below I highlight a few of the helpful ways in which yoga interrupts the compounding effect of stress and the shut down response of the body. It is important to note there are many different styles of yoga. For the purposes of this topic of stress and burnout, I am speaking about yoga of a slow and gentle nature, and practices which are intentional in its therapeutic application of pacing, posture choice, meditation, and breathing techniques.
Yoga Applications to Manage Stress and Burnout
Inner Body Sensing (Embodiment)
Yoga teaches us awareness skills of what’s happening within our bodies – noticing feelings, sensations, energy levels, body positioning, etc. When we regularly practice tuning inwards to the senses of the body, we get more familiar, more comfortable, and more tolerant of that which we can receive, including experiences which are unpleasant. This helps be more proficient in digesting all the emotional-mental stress that is moving through us and we become more resilient to stressful and emotional times. In addition, by being more embodied, we are better able to attend to momentary muscular tension and this can awaken us from a shut-down response.
In my classes and in yoga therapy sessions, I often take the students through a mind-body check-in to heighten the skills of inner body sensing. Once this process is familiar, the check-in can be used throughout your day to keep the flow of body-based processing going and become more proficient at assessing your nervous system status, allowing you to intervene with therapeutic tools (breathing, meditations, gentle yoga) as needed. This helps to lower anxiety or awaken us from a shut-down response.
Try this quick mind-body check in to improve your embodiment skills (can be done in any posture and any time in the day):
- Start by noticing where your body is grounding. If standing feel your feet to the ground; if sitting or leaning, feel the connection of ground through your seat, back and legs; if lying down, sense the back of your body and all the places it makes contact to surfaces beneath you.
- Move your attention to sensing how you are holding yourself – posture, body tension, and notice any other sensations present with you in the moment.
- Sense your breath and notice the rate and depth of your breath in this moment.
- Reflect on anything else that seems to be present withing your internal body awareness – feelings, thoughts, energy levels, etc.
Mindful Breathing and Moving
Breathing properly is key to regulating our nervous systems and an important antidote to chronic stress and burnout. Breathing slowly, through the nose and with good movement in the diaphragm will help recovery. Be aware if you have a pattern of hyperventilation or upper chest breathing (it is very helpful to do regular checking of your breath throughout the day). Focus on long smooth breaths, breathing into to the lower lungs (expanding low ribs and belly on the inhale), and working towards a slightly longer exhalation, will help to engage the vagus nerve and parasympathetic division of the nervous system. Check out this information page for more information on how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing.
Mindful movement is about paying attention to what you feel as you move and making decisions of how much of a stretch or how long to hold a stretch based on what feels helpful in the moment. Many slow paced, gentle yoga classes are excellent to encourage the mindfulness aspect while moving; however, doing a few stretches on your own can be very effective as well. The process is accumulative – the more your body relaxes from the mindful movement, the more the mind relaxes and the nervous system regulates, and this pattern becomes more efficient with practice.
Intentional Rest (relaxing or restorative yoga postures and meditations)
When you take time to properly rest (not zone out on your phone), but enter a state in which you find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and actively encourage a quieting of the mind and body, then your brain waves shift from the active thinking, known as Beta state, to the slower Alpha state where decompression happens. Brief periods of relaxed, alpha state in your day will assist the brain with waste removal, aid in the consolidation of new skills and knowledge, and serve as a way to balance the drive for productivity. After intentional rest in alpha state, your mind is more receptive, open, creative, and less critical, and this is important to restore the balance of stress and burnout.
Doing a restorative yoga pose or guided meditation, such as body scans and Yoga Nidras, will provide you with a moment in your day for intentional rest. Check out this blog highlighting a few yoga techniques and postures to stimulate the vagus nerve in relationship to regulating the nervous system. When possible, it is beneficial to close the eyes and use an eye pillow when resting. The light pressure on the eyeballs from the pillow stimulates the vagus nerve and oculocardiac reflex, facilitating the relaxation response.
If you want to learn more about how yoga can help you manage chronic stress or return you to a more regulated state in the case of burn out, consider connecting with a yoga therapist. With guidance and practice, you can develop better regulation skills for emotional resistance to stress and burnout.