According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) deteriorating mental health will represent one of the most serious health challenges to Western society of the twenty-first century. The WHO report states, "In the World Health Report 2001 that we devote to mental health, we bring updated figures which show that four of the ten leading causes of disability worldwide are neuropsychiatric disorders, accounting for 30.8% of total disability and 12.3% of the total burden of disease. This latter figure is expected to rise to 15% by the year 2020."
Similarly, Dr Barbara Mariposa refers to this report in her blog, "Stress, anxiety and depression are predicted to be the second biggest causes of ill health in Western countries by 2020."
Overwhelming stress, anxiety and the effects of depression are taking their toll on people from all walks of life. All of us can "burn out" regardless of social or economic status but there is no doubt that financial concerns can place enormous additional strain on those already struggling to juggle the day-to-day pressures of everyday modern life.
High achievers are not immune from professional burnout either. The founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington changed her lifestyle after a rude awakening. She suffered from burnout and exhaustion, "When I collapsed in April 2007, I was by our society's definition very successful, but by any sane definition of success, I was not ... As long as our culture defines success as money and power, we're stuck on a treadmill of stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout."
Stress, anxiety and mild depression (also substance misuse) have in the past been very problematic for me. As a matter of fact, in summer 2004 I burnt out while DJing, which left me no choice but to seek help and change my lifestyle completely. It was a huge wake up call -- I had hit a dark rock bottom. While I have improved dramatically in the last twelve years, I am certainly not immune to stress and anxiety and I can still succumb to feelings of despondency from time to time. Nonetheless, I have found several invaluable tools which help me to take care of myself and reduce the risk of burnout re-occurring. Practising mindfulness in all areas of my life has been the most wonderful investment I have ever made into my mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being.
Below are eight gentle suggestions which I put together in an eight-week course format, inspired by my book, Mindfulness Burnout Prevention: An 8-Week Course for Professionals. They are well worth exploring:
• Present-Moment Awareness, Equanimity and Calmness
-- Focusing on the present moment brings clarity with regard to our thought-life, emotional state, behaviour and immediate environment. Such clarity will reveal when we are neglecting our wellbeing. The more we practise present-moment awareness, the easier it is to see how futile it is to be attached to an outcome. We can begin to flow and demonstrate equanimity during life's vicissitudes. There are many different ways to practise present-moment awareness, however the simplest way is to get into the habit of watching the breath. Throughout the day pause on a regular basis and observe the breath flowing through your body. This is a good start.
• Communicating Mindfully
-- When I burnt out I was in a mild state of self-delusion. I thought that "I was fine" even though my body was giving me clear signals that I was exhausted. I pretended to be "super human", and so, I was being dishonest with myself and my fellows. Had I been able to communicate mindfully how I was truly feeling, I would have been able to slow down before it was too late. It's worth learning how to be honest with yourself and others by communicating with clarity. Ask yourself, "How am I really feeling?" "Am I mentally and/or emotionally overwhelmed?" "How often do I feel resentful towards my current circumstances?" "Am I dissatisfied or frustrated in my job/career?" "When was the last time I ate healthily or rested my body?" "How often do I take gentleness breaks?" "Am I communicating mindfully with my colleagues and family?"
• Focus, Alertness and Concentration
-- A lack of focus, alertness and concentration show that we are not anchoring ourselves in the present moment. Naturally, this will increase the likelihood of making mistakes and being less effective. Being able to focus on the task at hand releases stress and can be very fulfilling, even if it is something relatively mundane or "unimportant". Similarly being alert and aware of our mental commentary helps us to detach from mental noise and destructive thoughts. Note: being alert is very different from being "hyper-vigilant". The latter is emotionally draining and usually a symptom of PTSD or unresolved childhood trauma. Being alert is a calming emotional state and goes hand-in-hand with a dedicated daily mindfulness practice.
• Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence
-- Mindfulness is a wonderful way to practise "being" instead of compulsively "doing". Mindfulness is consciously being aware of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations and being aware of the external world with clarity. Practising mindfulness on a daily basis will boost mental and emotional wellbeing and lessen the impact of stress, anxiety and depression. It can also enhance our spiritual wellbeing. We can be mindful of our lifestyle and the company we keep. Rather than being on auto-pilot, we can pause and respond to events rather than reacting and being thrown off course by the slightest problem.
Similarly, emotional intelligence helps us to monitor our emotions. We can feel our feelings (pain, sadness, fear, sorrow or joy), without being overwhelmed by them. We can learn to recognise that while it's important to validate our feelings, we are not our emotions (we have feelings but we are not our feelings).
• Emotional Resilience
-- Life is difficult. Building a successful career in a global economy is a tall order. Bringing up a family also brings many challenges. However, when we develop emotional resilience we can persist and progress in our affairs. Rather than trying to force our way through life (which is counterproductive and leads to grave resentment) it is much healthier to focus on our efforts instead of potential outcomes. The fruit is in our efforts. It's the process that makes life fulfilling, not just a result. Remember that there are over seven billion people who also have personal desires, thus no matter how hard you try to push, resistance will be close by. The next time you find yourself trying to force your way through life, breathe and emotionally let go.
• Body Scan Awareness and Meditation Practices for Stress
Being aware of the condition of our body is essential. If we can listen to the human body and be aware of its needs, we will reduce stress. We know that memories are stored inside the muscles of the human body (traumatic or joyful memories). The human body remembers everything. Similarly, the human body informs us through feelings, aches and sensations when it needs to be nurtured or requires time to rest. By scanning the body with various meditation techniques we can boost our emotional wellbeing and reduce stress. Ask yourself "How is my body feeling in this very moment?" "How often do I pay attention to my body?" "Do I give my body regular exercise?" "How often do I allow myself downtime?"
Learning to direct compassion inwards is probably the kindest thing that we can do for ourselves. It's so easy to direct blame towards ourselves. When we are kind and compassionate towards ourselves, self-care becomes natural. If we nurture and take care of our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing, we are far less likely to burn out. It was Jack Kornfield who said, "If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete." Therefore, ask yourself on a regular basis, "Am I directing compassion inwards?" "Do I put enough time aside to relax and unwind?" "Am I allowing myself to believe cruel things about myself?" "What can I do right now to be more compassionate and loving towards myself?"
• Cultivating Gratitude and Appreciation in the Workplace
Regularly reminding ourselves about things we cherish and appreciate will shield us from adopting a negative frame of mind. While we cannot be appreciative all of the time, we can pause once a day and reflect on the things we can be grateful for rather than focussing on what is "missing". Writing in a gratitude journal can be very helpful or talking to your spouse/partner or a friend about your thankfulness will amplify your emotional health.
Christopher Dines is the author of Mindfulness Burnout Prevention: An 8-Week Course for Professionals.