Burnout is a term that sadly is increasingly linked to those working in caring professions. The repeated and prolonged exposure to a stressful environment, the never-ending exams in medical school and training to the physical and mental expectations of shift work and direct patient care, can contribute to reaching a point of exhaustion. Experiencing symptoms of burnout is a clear sign that our inner emotional functioning can no longer deal with the continued exposure to heightened levels of stress. Sound all too familiar and not very welcome? The good news is that yoga can help to reduce stress and prevent burnout from becoming part of our lives.
What are the stages of burnout?
Veninga and Spradley's five stages of burnout walk us through a model from the 'Honeymoon' stage - with high energy, creativity and positivity towards inevitable job stressors to the 'Emmeshment' stage when symptoms of burnout are embedded in everyday life that it becomes increasingly difficult to reflect and see that burnout is the cause of emotional symptoms. Early signs can be fatigue, sleep disturbance and increasing reliance on escapist activities; Netflix bingeing, social media scrolling and that bottomless glass of wine. Chronic exposure to these symptoms can, for some of us lead on to exhaustion, physical manifestations of stress and sometimes a crisis moment.
The good news is that it is always possible to revert to the 'Honeymoon' stage, and there are many brilliant resources out there to help you on that journey. In our lives with multiple expectations and stressors, reducing stress and preventing burnout has to be a number one priority. It is difficult to eliminate stress from our lives, but what matters is the degree that our bodies and minds are immersed in stress. Simply put, we need to care for ourselves and the people who dedicate their lives caring for others.
Does yoga work to reduce stress?
Hatha yoga is an excellent practice for reducing stress. Hatha yoga focuses on the position and alignment of the body within each asana, yoga pose. In contrast to vinyasa flow yoga - the movements are slower with very conscious transitions. Hatha yoga is perfect for beginners who want to take time to understand the traditional poses and alignment. The key is focusing on the movement of the body and the breath in synchronisation.
Even a short 15-20 minute practice once or twice a week can reduce stress and create time for you to connect and breathe. A review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine looked at the effects of yoga on healthcare workers exposed to heavy workloads and high levels of stress. From the 11 studies, including clinical trials on medical students, nurses, medical specialists and dentists, it can be demonstrated that yoga can improve health. The interventions included regular sessions of yoga with self-reflection, self-care and tools to build emotional resilience. When delivered alone and within workplace wellbeing programmes participants reported improved physical and mental wellbeing that enhanced their sense of value and positivity in their work.
Three easy yoga poses for stress relief.
The great news is that you don't need a lot of time or space to practice some simple Hatha yoga poses. These poses can be done in whatever you are wearing and in a small space.
Easy pose (Sukhasana)
I love to start my practice with this simple Hatha pose. Sit on a mat or blanket with your legs crossed and hands rested on your knees. With your eyes closed, find a position where your spine is long, and your shoulders are relaxed, away from your ears. It helps to retain some tension in your spine in this posture and avoid your back collapsing or scrunching over. Experiment with blankets under your hips or ankles for extra support—an excellent pose for trying some simple meditation or breathing exercises.
Easy pose variation - forward fold
From easy pose hinge at the hips and place your hands in front of you on the mat. You can place a blanket, block or books under your hands to reduce the stretch in the spine. Allow your head to fall forward. A great pose for taking a few deep breaths and feeling grounded.
Butterfly pose (Baddha Konasana)
This pose is one of my favourites and incredible at any time of the day. I also love to add this to a bedtime practice. From a seated position bring the soles of your feet together, allowing your knees to fall to the sides. Hold your ankles or toes and stay for five deep breaths. If comfortable, you can bend forward from the hips and release your upper body over your feet. This is a great posture for releasing tension from the inner thighs.
By practising yoga regularly, we can invigorate the mind to become more resilient. A beautiful analogy from Iyengar is the heavy rain falling on the ground...when the surface of the soil is hard and dry, the rain floods the surface and has no way to escape. When it rains more gradually over a few days, the ground is moist, and the water seeps deeper into the soil nourishing all that lives within it. Instead of allowing the stress to fall heavily and sit on the surface of our minds, we can use yoga to dissipate the stress through movement and breath. We can't stop the rain from falling, but by taking time for self-care, we can cultivate resilience to cope with what life throws our way.
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Photo by Saige at Saige Seadae Photography
Cocchiara R et al. The Use of yoga to manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers: a systematic review https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6462946/