5 Thoughts on burnout & how not to

I’m currently finishing up preparations for a presentation this week to a local company about preventing burnout. I’ve done many presentations...stress reduction, eating well, lifestyle...and although the content I’m putting together overlaps a lot of that, somehow this topic resonates with me the most. Perhaps because I’ve been there. I know this stuff because I’ve lived it...and still do from time to time. But as any lesson in life, I don’t know that the point is never to fall again, but to gather tools along the way so we fall less often, fall less hard and get up quicker.

One of the daily rituals I enjoy (and yet still inconsistent with), is reading something uplifting as I drink my morning tea, as the start of my day. My favourite right now is to read one or two short essays from Timothy Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors. The questions asked of 100 experts in their field are clever and applicable to anyone wanting to uplevel. I have come to believe over the years that there are no coincidences (thank-you Deepak Chopra), and those “that’s so crazy” moments of serendipity are in fact reinforcing that you are on the right path. So today, before I revisit my presentation, I grabbed Tim’s book and opened up to the next story. The bold quote at the top of the page reads “Burnout is not the price you have to pay for success” from none other than Arianna Huffington. I won’t rewrite the contents here because I truly believe this is a book that anyone would find valuable, but there were some key thoughts she shared about life and burnout in particular that I felt to be worth sharing here...and you can bet will be included in this week’s presentation also. Keep in mind I’m paraphrasing here, but this is how her words fell into my ears...

1. Express gratitude. Remember those who supported you when they had nothing to gain. She STILL sends a Christmas card to the banker who gave her a loan years ago when she (seemed to be) out of options. 

2. Put on your own oxygen mask first. This analogy is used a ton with coaching people to put self care as a priority. Arianna (may I use her first name?) describes her oxygen mask to be sleeping, meditating, walking, working out, etc. It took her collapsing in 2007 from exhaustion for her to see how important her wellbeing was to her productivity. She views taking care of herself as an investment (as we all should) that has pay-offs for years to come.

3. Reframe perception of time. This one is huge for me. I honestly always have felt this panic around “running out of time”. Even when I graduated at 25 from Chiropractic College, I felt I was late to the game (of work) and still feel that way at times. I think a lot of this is culturally constructed. In this context, she was discussing the parameters she had placed around work vs non-work time. She began to reframe what “work” time meant, and started to include walks and meditating and unplugging as part of her “work” because those habits were what enabled her to be productive, creative, effective and...happier. And isn’t that the grand poobah goal for all of us?

4. Changing your mind about something is one thing, but sometimes it is easier to start with a small action step to move us in the right direction. She gave two tech tips I love...one won’t be brand new but when I’ve done this, I had the best sleep of my life and got out of bed with ease. It’s as simple as plugging in your technology OUTSIDE your bedroom at night. NO scrolling through social media, or last minute emails. If you must remember midnight ideas, then leave a journal and pen beside your bed. But disconnect. The second, which was a new idea for me, is to periodically scramble the apps on your phone. She describes the benefit of giving you an extra amount of time to decide if you do indeed need to use their phone or if its more a boredom or habit. I’ve also gone so far as leaving my phone in my car if I’m waiting for an appointment. I’ve noticed things around me when my eyes aren’t glued to the screen and the biggest thing is that in a room full of people, no one is even aware of the person next to them. If I want to improve my connections in this world it wont happen by looking at my screen. From a neurology standpoint though, scrambling the apps on your phone or tablet is similar to taking a different route home. It causes the brain to pay attention and gets you out of the hardwired path you take each day. Any action that has novelty is brain food.

5. OK so, sometimes we can’t always be ahead of the game and lets face it. We all hit a wall from time to time. So what then? Typically that’s when we feel we have the least amount of time and often by then are in a headspace where solutions elude us and the downward spiral continues. SO what then? Arianna mirrors my thoughts on taking five minutes to breathe. If taking five minutes away from the task will make the next twenty more productive, you must pause and centre yourself.

There is so much more I could write on this, and I likely will, but these gems stood out. Start where you are, look to where you want to go and ask yourself if your current lifestyle and habits will get you there. If so, breathe and enjoy. If not, its in your hands to take one step (or one thought) in the right direction.

 

Your Heart and Vagus: 5 ways to tap into your inner calm

In Chiropractic College we were required to learn everything there is to know about the nervous system. Literally, every single nerve, where the nerve originated and branched to, what functions it affected and even the names of the grooves and spaces the nerve would pass over or through along its length. I had the most ridiculous ways of remembering everything from acronymns, to poems or phrases. "My heart is in Vagus" was one I remember most clearly...from someone who has never even been to Vegas. But it stuck, and it worked. The vagus nerve does in fact have parasympathetic input to the heart, however it affects many more functions in the body also. 

In our stressed out, maxxed out culture, understanding this nerve and how to stimulate it is a powerful tool that will have a ripple affect on your health. It demonstrates clearly how interconnected our anatomy and physiology is, but also provides further evidence of the sometimes ignored mind-body connection. 

 

Vagus Nerve 101:

  • The Vagus Nerve is Cranial Nerve 10 (of 12) and is the longest of all cranial nerves
  • Branching from the brainstem to the abdomen, it makes stops along the way to various other organs including the heart, lungs, esophagus & larynx (voice box)
  • Parasympathetic control (rest, digest and regeneration of body), this nerve slows the heart rate and signals stomach muscles to push food into the small intestine
  • Despite the many "output" functions this nerve has, it is believed that 80% of its fibers are "input", carrying info from Body to Brain
  • Overstimulation of Vagus nerve can lead to dizziness, light headedness and even fainting if blood vessels dilate with a decreased heart rate decreasing the ability to pump blood to the brain
  • The vagus nerve can be irritated by GI distress, hiatal hernias and (drum roll) poor posture and muscular imbalances (direct and indirect impact of Chiropractic care!)
  • In addition to the above, excessive alcohol, spicy food, stress, fatigue and anxiety can also irritate this nerve
vagus n notes.jpg

Strategies and Action Steps...

By now you likely have a hunch if 1 - your vagus nerve needs a little love and 2 - if your daily habits are supporting or inhibiting the nerve's influence. Here are 5 strategies that hopefully can become habits.

1. Wash your face with cold water. In fact, sudden exposure to cold can dial down our sympathetic system (fight/ flight/ freeze) and ramp up our parasympathetic system. Beyond washing your face with cold water, having a cold shower (or even ending your shower with a blast of cold) or using a cold pool (at least one gym in Calgary has one) on a regular basis can help!

2. Sing, chant or talk! No doubt the vagal connection to our voice box is a probable reason for this. Perhaps in your cold shower you can belt out a tune :). Although not for everyone, some yoga classes offer chanting (om chants have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve) and singing also. This used to be super intimidating for me and not my jam, but the calming effect is undeniable. You literally feel your body vibrate. 

3. Move - specifically mild exercise, yoga and meditation. My initial introduction to yoga was more out of homesickness at the time, and although I've experienced various physical benefits, its the grounding and calming that keeps bringing me back to my mat. Mild exercise and yoga also help stimulate gut movement which supports the vagus' role in digestion also.

4. Deep and slow breathing. Breathing with your diaphragm (seeing belly and side expansion with inhales) at a slow rate of 5-6 breaths per minute is key. Equal time breathing in and out stimulates the vagus nerve and improves sensitivity of baroreceptors - sensors in the heart and neck that regulate blood pressure. Increased sensitivity of these receptors allows the vagus nerve to be stimulated sooner when blood pressure rises.

5. Nutrition. Not only WHAT we consume (including EPA and DHA found in fish oil, and probiotics) but WHEN we consume it. There is a growing volume of information related to intermittent fasting that shows an impact on heart rate variability, a common marker for vagal tone. 

I could go on with more strategies, but I'm not sure who stuck it out to even get to this point in the blog :). No surprise, the action steps suggested above are pretty much universal lifestyle hacks to support much more than just the vagus nerve. Everything is connected and as I've said before, if we truly want to improve the health of our communities, we must understand how the healthy body works and support it.