Banishing Burnout Stress

by JENNIFER PIRTLE, originally published here in Yoga Journal

For eight years, Karl LaRowe worked in the emergency room at an inner-city hospital in Portland, Oregon. As a crisis intervention counselor, he helped hundreds of people each month cope with everything from domestic violence and depression to psychosis and suicide attempts. Eventually, the constant adrenaline rushes and biweekly 48-hour shifts took their toll. “I wasn’t sleeping well,” says LaRowe. “Thoughts about the patients would come crashing into my mind, and I became acutely aware of noises.” He began to drink heavily and to use drugs, and spiraled into a deep depression.

stress imageWhen antidepressants and talk therapy didn’t help, LaRowe felt he had no choice but to quit his job. After drifting for a while, he remarried and moved to Singapore, where he met a master of qi gong, a Chinese system of exercise and breathing performed in a meditative state. It was this ancient technique, which he now practices for 15 to 20 minutes every day, that LaRowe says gave him back his life. “I got lots of ideas in therapy,” he says. “But nothing was happening. Qi gong was my first experience of really feeling the frozen energy in my body release.” Eventually, LaRowe returned to the health field; he now works two to four
days a week assessing mental health clients in the court system. “Though my schedule is very busy, the difference is that today when my day is done, it’s done,” he says. “I no longer take my patients home with me.” He also leads regular workshops on body awareness, breathing, and compassion fatigue—things he wishes he’d learned about years earlier—for social workers, psychologists, and other professional caregivers.

As LaRowe learned, making your work less stressful doesn’t have to mean leaving it behind for good. (And how many of us can hope to do that, anyway?) Instead, the key is to transform your relationship to the stress so that it no longer overwhelms you. More and more people are discovering that mind-body practices like yoga, qi gong, and meditation can be hugely helpful in shifting the way they react to stress.

The need for anti-stress practices has become increasingly urgent. Americans work nine full weeks more per year than our peers in Western Europe. And even if we get time off, we don’t always use it: At least 30 percent of employed adults don’t take all their vacation days, according to a 2005 Harris Interactive poll. Each year, Americans hand back 421 million days to their employers. Constant emails and ever-increasing workloads have too many of us working through lunch and staying late, yet still feeling as though we can never catch up. The upshot, say experts, is that we’re overscheduled, overworked, and just plain overwhelmed.

“Burnout is the biggest occupational hazard of the 21st century,” says Christina Maslach, Ph.D., coauthor of Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work. “Today’s work environment has lost its human dimension. Global economic pressures, along with technological advances such as pagers and email, have altered the landscape irrevocably. Given these new challenges, it’s no wonder that our relationship with our work is under constant strain.”

The always-on approach brings with it enormous moment-by-moment mental and physical costs. Unyielding stress floods your body with a cascade of hormones: Adrenaline pumps up blood pressure and makes your heart beat faster; cortisol raises your blood sugar level, and, if it remains chronically elevated, can erode your immune system. Not only does such chronic stress make you more susceptible to ailments such as migraine headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, but research increasingly shows it can raise your risk for more serious conditions, including heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression.

A team of researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) found that stress may even accelerate aging at the cellular level. The study found that the blood cells of women who had spent many years caring for a child with a health condition appeared to be, genetically, about 10 years older than the cells of women whose caretaking responsibilities were less prolonged.

Although the study focused on caregivers, the findings apply to overworked employees, too. “People with other sources of life stress showed similar relationships between their levels of stress and cell aging,” says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF and the study’s lead author.

Stress itself, Epel emphasizes, is neither inherently good nor bad. Instead, how you perceive and react to it determines how it will affect your health. “In the study,” she explains, “the perception of stress was more important than whether one was under the strain of caregiving or not.”

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Practice Acceptance

BY MEAGAN FRANCIS  |  Originally posted here in Yoga Journal

When Julie Woodward married her husband, Drew they were both more or less agnostic. But when a close friend’s health was debilitated by multiple sclerosis, Woodward found herself drawn to the spiritual life. “I began to realize that there’s a lot more going on than what’s on the surface,” says the 46-year-old business owner in Williamston, Michigan. She began practicing yoga, meditating, changing her diet, and using visualization and natural remedies for healing and wellness. “I came to believe that we’re all one, and that God exists around us at all times,” she says. When her friend died 15 years ago, Woodward found herself yearning for someone with whom she could share her spiritual journey: “I remember thinking I couldn’t be alone with all the thoughts and questions I was having,” she says.

girlinfieldBut Woodward’s husband wasn’t open to hearing about her experiences. “He blew me off,” she says. “Eventually, I learned to be quiet about it.” And as she became more tuned in to her beliefs, Woodward became aware of long-standing tensions. “He’d come home at night and turn the TV on and life off,” she says. “More and more the gap widened, until it got to the point where I didn’t ever want the TV on, and that’s all he wanted.”

When she began hosting occasional spiritual retreats in her home, her husband started avoiding her. When, two years ago, Woodward decided to open a business dedicated to healing arts and spirituality, she thought the separation between her “stuff” and her home would please her husband, but instead he grew more upset and seemed to feel threatened by the changes. About six months later, the couple separated, and though they have no immediate plans to divorce, Woodward says she’s not sure they’ll be able to work through their differences: “Every day I experience something that validates everything I believe, and I don’t want to be with somebody I can’t share that joy with,” she says.

Variations on this theme are common in the yoga community, where people often find themselves changing in ways that they may never have signed up for—and that their partner isn’t interested in or feels threatened by. While we’re all well schooled in accepting differences of opinion to make a relationship work, it seems a lot easier to work through a disagreement about what color to paint a bedroom than to come to terms with divergent spiritual beliefs. You might wonder: Can a relationship weather differences that seem so, well, fundamental?

Accept Yourself First

Spiritual teachers say the answer is yes—if you fully embrace the practice of acceptance. “The fundamental issue is acceptance of oneself,” says Richard Miller, a yoga teacher, licensed clinical psychologist, and marriage and family therapist who’s been in practice since 1971. He suggests asking: Do I really accept my partner? Do I really accept myself as I am? “The degree that you have not fully welcomed all that you are is the same degree to which you won’t be able to welcome your partner,” he says.

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Breathing Lessons

BY TONY BRIGGS  /  originally posted here in Yoga Journal

When I first encountered pranayama, I thought it was a complete waste of time. I had been taking classes for a couple of years and had just found the instructor I later came to see as my first “real” yoga teacher. One day she announced to the class, “Today we’re going to do some pranayama.” Huh? I thought. What’s that? Prana—what?

yoga beachWe did some simple resting poses and then some very basic breath-awareness exercises, followed by Savasana (Corpse Pose). I wasn’t thrilled. I wanted a workout, to get strong and stretched out. That’s what I had come for, that’s what I’d paid for—and instead, I was lying on the floor just breathing. This wasn’t for me! Luckily, my teacher taught pranayama the last week of every month, so it was easy to avoid. I just skipped class that week.

But my real luck lay in my teacher’s dogged persistence. Month after month, she kept teaching pranayama, and month after month I kept resisting it—though I did occasionally show up for class. I was just like the guy in Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. No matter how my teacher presented it, I kept on turning up my nose and saying, “I do not like this pran-a-yam. I do not like it, Sam-I-am.” And then one day something inside me suddenly clicked, and I changed my mind. During an agitated and confused time in my life, I glimpsed in pranayama practice the possibility of refuge. As I have slowly gone deeper into the practice over many years, that refuge has gone on opening inside me.

Given my own experience, it’s easy for me to empathize with students who are not drawn to pranayama right away. These days, many people get started in yoga when they see a video or some photos in a magazine, or when a friend tells them of the physical fitness benefits. Most new students encounter the outward shapes of the yoga asanas first. For a long time, the inner workings of the asanas can remain unseen, mysterious, and maybe a bit intimidating to the novice yogi. Particularly, the notion of using the breath and the breath’s rhythmic internal energy—prana—may seem a little too esoteric to be relevant or useful.

Traditionally, though, the practice of pranayama—releasing and channeling the body’s stores of internal pranic energy—has been seen as the core of hatha yoga practice. Pranayama is meant to nurture a high level of bodily health and mental clarity, both of which are crucial steps on the path to self-knowledge and a wholesome, authentic life.  Continue reading