Oh how the times have changed! How often do you hear the words pandemic, work, stress, and burnout in a sentence? Most likely, often. There is something in the human spirit that will survive and prevail, there is a brilliant light burning within that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes. Read that again. These words need to be heard and reflected on as the statistics for burnout are concerning, shown in studies, globally. We find ourselves searching high and low for stress relief.
In search of stress relief, we can consider the amazing practice of yoga. There is a pertinent quote by the great B.K.S. Iyengar that we can turn to and absorb through reflection, in times such as these. He said, “Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame." Read on more to find out about yoga for stress relief.
Defining Terminology to Understand Stress, Anxiety & Burnout Relief
In psychology and biology, any environmental or physical pressure that elicits a response from an organism is called ‘stress.'
Stress is a natural part of life however, prolonged and unmanaged stress can be detrimental to one’s health. Have you experienced feelings of irritability or overwhelm? That you have to drag yourself through the day or week? These are some symptoms of stress and you are not alone in feeling like this. We then need to seek stress relief methods to manage and relieve our exposure to stress.
Remember the quote, about the brilliant light burning in your heart that ceases to go out? It remains there. Rest assured that there are ways to nurse that fire within you. But first, it is crucial that we educate ourselves in the matter; move from what we do know to help us understand what we don't, especially since the words stress and burnout are quite loosely thrown around.
What is anxiety?
According to Oxford Medicine Online, anxiety refers to multiple mental and physiological phenomena. This includes a person's conscious state of worry over a future unwanted event, or fear of an actual situation. It is important to note that anxiety and fear are closely related. Some scholars view anxiety as a uniquely human emotion and fear as common to non-human species such as animals. Another distinction often made between fear and anxiety is that fear is an adaptive response to realistic threat, whereas anxiety is a diffuse emotion; sometimes an unreasonable or excessive reaction to current or future perceived threat.
The medical definition of burnout
The World Health Organization (WHO) befittingly recognized ‘burnout’ as a medical diagnosis. “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” the WHO said. The WHO also refers to it as an “occupational phenomenon.”
Burn-out is characterized by three dimensions in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases ICD-11 as follows:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job/ occupation; and reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Two kinds of stress - good versus bad stress
Let us begin with a statement that not all stress is bad. Have you heard of eustress? This may sound ironic simply because we seem to be socialized to assume that stress is a bad thing. But, stress is your body's response to what needs focus or an action. For example, you have a goal to attain, an interview you need to get to or you need to attend to your crying child. You need the “gas” of your sympathetic nervous system to do what you need to do. This is positive stress i.e. eustress. Clinical psychiatrist Dr. Michael Genovese conveys that eustress is actually good for our wellbeing; it helps us stay motivated in life. On the other hand, distress is associated with the feeling of overwhelm and helplessness. It is when we are under-resourced that distress kicks in and this negative stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, and burnout. Then, it is crucial that we learn and practice self-care to resource ourselves; tap into our inner resilience.
Understanding the Difference Between Stress & Burnout
Burnout is work-related stress. Yes, burnout and stress are related, however, they are different in ways and express differently too. Johannes Gutenberg at Universität Mainz explains that he found a chicken-and-egg situation regarding stress and burnout. Through his research on burnout he discovered that work stress and burnout are mutually reinforcing; but that unexpectedly, the effect of work stress on burnout is much smaller than the effect of burnout on work stress." This means that the more severe a person's burnout becomes, the more stressed they will feel at work, such as being under time pressure." This then requires effective stress relief management.
Continued, unmanaged stress turns to burnout and some of the symptoms of burnout are chronic fatigue, skepticism and inefficiency in the workplace. These symptoms are not from having a tough day at work but again, from prolonged exposure to unhealthy stress in the workplace, specifically. Therefore, work environment plays a role in burnout. Social dynamics in the workplace for example leadership and level of co-operation regarding your boss, management, your team can be a driver for burnout. Bigger issues such changes in industry that affect social dynamics and work demands in the work are also a driver for burnout.
Some differences between burnout and stress
When we are stressed at work we experience it as:
Having a sense of urgency
Over-engagement in work activities
However, in burnout we experience:
A sense of helplessness
Disengagement in work activities
How we interact with people and the state of our relationships work as a team has an impact on how we feel. At work, how a team works together impacts the quality of work produced. Finding a way to work optimally as a team can help balance job demands and work resources, of which an imbalance can be a driver for stress. In short, how we manage our relationships; at home and in the workplace, impacts our lives. There are yogic ways to build stronger groups and relationships. Such as, connection to oneself through meditation, using yoga philosophy and principles to connect healthily to others and for stress relief in relationships.
The Nervous System and Stress
We can approach stress in two ways. Firstly, by pausing to notice the relevant signs of unhealthy stress we experience. We can learn about the nervous system and how to tap into the part of our nervous system that brings us calm and gets us into “rest and digest '' mode. Secondly, we can utilize self-care and self-growth practices to tap into the power of resilience.
The structure of the nervous system
So first, let’s look at the nervous system. In the case of stress, it is important that we gain a rudimentary understanding of our nervous system. Why? Well, because your nervous system is your very own ‘command center.’ It receives, interprets, and responds to the stimuli in the world. The nervous system is responsible for our stress responses. Stress is the way in which the brain and body respond to physical, mental, or emotional demands. If there is a challenge, your brain and body then respond to it. This could be deadlifting a heavier weight than usual, dealing with a death in the family, or personally battling an illness. If we are exposed to stress without the tools to manage it healthily, we find ourselves caught up in chronic stress which contributes to burnout.
The nervous system is made up of two parts, the central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system.
The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system is made up of the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system guides your voluntary movements and the autonomic nervous system controls your involuntary activities such as digestion and your heartbeat.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches:
The sympathetic nervous system
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)
Both parts of the autonomic nervous system are important and have their respective specific purpose and either the sympathetic nervous system or PNS can be engaged at any given time. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight, flight, or freeze response to a stressor; perceived threat. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can bring the body into “rest and digest” after a stressor has passed.
These days stressors can be a traffic jam before work, your boss yelling at you, deadlines or a strained family relationship. These perceived threats activate our sympathetic nervous system. This is a normal process however it is crucial that we manage stressors accordingly to avoid staying in a stress state. If we don’t, over a period of time, this chronic stress can have a serious negative impact on your health and well-being. Stress relief then seems more of a challenge to find.
When we sense a stressor, such as we see a dangerous animal looking as if it may pounce, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we have a “fight, flight or freeze '' response. Cortisol which is the primary stress hormone is produced to release sugar in the blood for energy. Also from this stress hormone production, survival bodily systems are prioritized. To make it clearer, if there is a perceived threat, digestive and reproductive system activities are not prioritized for survival but the cardiovascular system activities are. After all, in a flight response, you need to run away which requires the cardiovascular system. You’re not concerned with procreation at this point. Adrenaline is also produced which quickens your heart rate pumping more blood to muscles, your blood pressure also rises and you breathe more rapidly preparing you to run if you need to.
The sympathetic nervous system response helps us survive and actions are geared toward escaping possible danger. It is a survival response to a potentially life-threatening situation. It is natural and normal. However, these days, we may feel livelihood-threatening stressors and so the body stays in a stress state with various bodily functions that over time contribute to health and mental health conditions. So, if we learn how to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), we can dissipate the response and move toward stress relief. We can affirm to ourselves that though we may be in a challenging situation, we have the ability to healthily and appropriately respond to it. We can affirm that we are not in a life-threatening situation if we miss a deadline or forget to call an important client. We can feel safe and then we can tap into our resilience reserves.
You see, when the perceived threat has passed our PNS comes into play. Your heartbeat slows down, muscles can now relax, blood flow can increase to all bodily systems; you are in a “rest and digest '' state. There is also mental clarity that comes from being in this part of your nervous system. It is common to use yoga for stress relief. You may have felt this in Savasana or Corpse Pose at the end of a yoga class.
The vagus nerve and vagal tone
The vagus nerve is the major component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It oversees a list of integral bodily functions such as immune responses, digestive processes, and heart rate. When the vagus nerve is activated in a healthy and non-intrusive way, vagal tone is improved. You see, your vagal tone determines the timing in which your body finds stress relief after a stress response.
Yoga for Stress Relief
Often unhealthy stress can become such a habitual part of life that you do not even recognize it anymore and long-term stress will eventually have damaging effects on your health. You may not always be able to control the sources of stress, but you can learn to modify your reactions to it.
Yoga for stress relief is a tool in your stress relief toolbox. Through the calm and mindful practice of Hatha Yoga you can re-establish healthy breathing patterns and learn to relax. By learning to relax and consciously experiencing relaxation, you can recognize early signs of stress in your daily life and learn to respond more calmly and consciously and find stress relief.
Through this natural growth, you will gain stress relief from stressful situations. This is important both for mental health and for physical well-being. When stressed, all bodily functions such as digestion, excretion, sleep, and so on are thrown out of balance. When stress becomes a chronic condition, we can suffer from a wide variety of bodily effects. Indigestion and hyper-acidity are just two. In fact, many studies have proven a direct link between stress and most of the common ills, such as diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, immune system diseases, and more.
One study explains the benefits of using yoga for stress relief. In this study it was found that stress relief was brought about because yoga reduced the accumulated stress-related 'wear and tear' on the body. In essence, this positive influence on 'wear and tear' on the body subsequently restores your body’s optimal balance, or homeostasis. Mel Robin, author of the acclaimed Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yoga Asana, agrees. He believes that the practice of yoga can increase control of the vagus nerve—which increases integration in the shifts between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. This integration of your body and mind helps you find stress relief. Certain yoga asanas, especially inverted ones, or any when the forehead rests on the floor, may shift the autonomic nervous system toward parasympathetic dominance, through stimulation of the vagus nerve.
Other studies have shown that yoga practices correct under-activity of the parasympathetic nervous and GABA systems (in part through stimulation of the vagus nerve) in addition to reducing accumulated stress-related wear and tear.
GABA is a major neurotransmitter in the mammalian central nervous system and plays the principal role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. Many reports have linked stress and depression to low GABA levels. Scientists have measured GABA levels of yoga practitioners both before and after an hour-long yoga session focused on Hatha Yoga and related breathing. There were no extensive periods of meditation or pranayama. The study guidelines demanded at least 55 minutes of common yoga postures and exercises, such as inversions and back bends, twists, and Sun Salutations.
The scientists compared 8 yoga practitioners to a control group of 11 individuals who did no yoga but instead read magazines. The results, published in 2007, were stunning. They showed that the brains of yoga practitioners displayed an average GABA rise of 27 percent. By contrast, the comparison group experienced not the slightest change. A follow-up study looked at subjects with no prior knowledge of yoga. They learned the Iyengar style from scratch and practiced it for three months. The findings, published in 2010, showed that even beginning yogis experienced major rises in the neurotransmitter, along with improved mood and less anxiety. The average GABA rise was less than in the previous study—13 percent versus 27 percent—about half as much. Still, the new yogis did better than the walkers (the control group).
This suggests that the practice of asanas and related breathing is more efficient in stress relief and its long-term effects than exercise (moderate or vigorous) or any other leisure activity. The main influences of yoga asana practice on stress relief are, as shown above, the activation of the rest-and-relax mode (the parasympathetic nervous system) and the direct increase of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain.
7 Self-Care Rituals for Burnout, Anxiety & Stress Relief
The stimulation and balance of our nervous systems lies at the foundation of yogic practices. Classical Hatha Yoga offers different techniques to regulate our nervous system, through the regulation of our breathing, muscle tone and mental attitude.
Here are 7 yogic techniques that you can do on a daily basis for stress relief and to assist you in your burnout recovery:
1. Gentle Classical Surya Namaskara
In Sanskrit, surya means sun and namaskar means greeting or salutation. Doing 4 to 8 rounds of Surya Namaskara and then resting in Savasana can have a positive effect on one’s mental state. It is an ancient ritual of twelve steps that warms up the body preparing it for yoga practice. This warming sequence has holistic benefits for the body and mind. Surya Namaskara helps improve blood circulation and strengthen heart function. Surya Namaskar stimulates a rhythmic breathing process as breath is synchronized with each movement. This empties the lungs more vigorously and there is an opportunity for more oxygenated air to refill them.
2. Shashankasana Breathing
This practice allows for your upper body to lay on your thighs and the pressure helps you breathe more consciously.
Sit in Vajrasana with hands on the thighs
The upper body is upright and relaxed
Inhaling through your nose, raise both arms above the head
While exhaling through your nose, fold forward
The arms, trunk, and head move together and remain aligned
The forehead and arms should rest on the floor in front of the knees or on appropriate props
The buttocks remain on the heels (or on a block/ cushion placed between your calves)
Breathing calmly through your nose, remain in this position for a few breaths
Relax the whole body, especially the shoulders, neck, and back
Take a deep breath in through your nose and, without rounding the spine, raise the upper body and arms
Exhaling through your nose, return to the starting position
3. Legs-up-the wall - Viparita Karani
Viparita Karani helps to balance the adrenal glands and due to your supported position, helps you relax and breathe deeply. To come into this pose
Begin seated beside a wall
Position yourself so that your your hip and lean shoulder against the wall
Gently lower your upper body down to the ground
Lift the legs up against the wall
You can wiggle closer toward the wall or away from the wall until you are in a comfortable, relaxed position
Use various props for support in this position as a folded blanket or pillow
Your head and arms are relaxed
In this position, relax and focus on deep breathing and relaxation
To come out of the position you can bring your knees toward your chest and gently hug them in. Then gently roll to one side. Remain here for a few breaths before sitting up.
4. Brahmari Chanting
This is a calming breathing technique. You can focus on the exhalation but be sure to take it slow and move at a pace that feels right for you. You can even incorporate a simple flow for stress to help you center yourself.
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed
Place your index fingers on your ears. There is cartilage between your cheek and ear. Place your index fingers on the cartilage
Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out, gently press the cartilage. You can keep the cartilage pressed or press it in and out with your fingers while making a loud humming sound like a bee
You can also make a low-pitched sound or a high-pitched one depending on what feels comfortable to you
Breathe in again and continue the same pattern for 6 – 8 times
5. Sun Gazing
Sun gazing is basically gazing at the sun. This sounds simple however, there are various safety precautions to gain benefits of the practice rather than cause harm to the eyes. Sungazing, when done correctly, absorbs sun energy which is beneficial for the brain and one’s well being.
Here’s how to practice it safely:
It is best practiced at the beginning of daylight in the morning (sunrise) or the last hour of daylight(sunset). It shouldn’t be practiced when the sun is very strong. During winter months, when the sun is less strong, it can also be practiced during the day.
Start slowly, even with a few seconds and be aware of any feelings of discomfort or pain. Stop immediately if you do.
Face toward the sun and gaze at the sun. You can also start with the eyes closed.
Remove glasses, contact lenses and avoid using an instrument to sun gaze.
Gaze at the sun while focussing on your breathing. Every time you breathe in, imagine that you are absorbing the life-giving, rejuvenation energy of the sun. Every time you breathe out, breathe out any mental, emotional or physical tension.
6. Mala Japa
Using a mantra with a Mala is a beneficial and easy way to start your meditation practice.
A mala is a prayer bead necklace containing 108 beads and a guru bead. By repeating a mantra, you enter into meditation and this has various mental health benefits.
7. Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra holds immense benefits for all those who struggle to let go, those who suffer from lack of sleep, trauma, burn-out, and anxiety. It is also highly beneficial and holds great healing power for anyone who wants to experience a deeper sense of peace and re-connect more profoundly with themselves. The practice of Yoga Nidra leads us into a state of harmonious, restful being.
Yoga can have a positive impact on us. It can help with the prevention of chronic stress, anxiety and burnout. In short, yoga for stress relief is an amazing tool for the body and mind. It is important that we look to yoga as a complementary and supplementary modality to help us heal the mind-body connection. Unhealthy and unmanaged stress and strain over time can negatively impact our breathing, health and well-being. It is important that we find a consistent and safe yoga practice to help us “rest and digest” after the challenging stimulus we face in the world. This brings us back to center, to calm. After all, “Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame."