The mindful remedy for stress and burnout
In this article I will comment on studies that indicate how mindfulness and meditation are related to resilience, self regulation and purpose. Drawing on research as well as direct personal experience, I will suggest that mindfulness and meditation are valuable to programmes that aim to prevent as well as heal the effects of overwhelming stress and burnout.
Burnout is believed to result from unwavering and persistent stress (Cartwright & Cooper, 1996; Selye, 1950), therefore, since it is known to reduce stress, mindfulness is most likely helpful to alleviate burnout too and might even serve as a preventative measure. Burnout has been referred to as a ‘soul sickness’ (Wright, 2010, p 8.), where one reaches a point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, but oblivious of any solution. A common aspect of burnout are dysfunctional attitudes and behaviours that are disengaged from the present moment (cited in Dierendonck, Garssen & Visser, 2005). This is similar to what (Brown & Ryan, 2003) describe as ‘‘mindlessness’’, being the opposite of mindfulness, which they consider to be an open and active mental state that is engaged with experiences as they unfold in the moment.
Physician burnout specialist Doctor Dike Drummond (2012) refers to Burnout as a calling, calling for a change. The problem is that those headed for burnout and those already affected by it don’t hear that call because of their lack of mindfulness (present moment awareness). One reason for not paying attention to themselves is because soon to be or already burnt out people are usually pursuing external goals (often unsuccessfully) and are generally less concerned with their own internal needs, hence they become drained of energy and burn out. Unless helped, those with burnout will most likely continue to not hear the call and this can result in a downward spiralling of the burnout syndrome, making matters even worse.
Recent research (cited in Gonza ́lez-Moralesa, G., et al. 2012) has demonstrated that the experience of burnout in organisations is contagious and it can be transferred from one employee to another. Katz et al. (2005) have found that mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques have the potential to transform, not only individual relationships, but also the overall work environment, thus preventing burnout from spreading. Their data affirmed that MBSR is a useful intervention for helping to resolve old wounds and unresolved issues. This is an example of how mindfulness can address the cause of stress and burnout.
Mindfulness in relation to resilience
What is missing for many sufferers of stress and burnout is resilience – the ability to maintain “elasticity” and “buoyancy” (dictionary.com) in the face of adversity. In Jacobs, T. L., et al. (2011) resilience is referred to as a family of connected phenomena that enable one to adapt adequately in challenging situations. Siegel (2007) claims that mindfulness practice is scientifically proven to develop a long-term state of resilience by enhancing physical, mental, and social wellbeing. The integration of mindfulness practices is suggested by Meiklejohn et.al. (2012) to enhance self-regulation of one’s emotions and focus of attention, whilst cultivating mental flexibility, which in turn promotes resilience. This is further confirmed by studies which have shown that mindfulness is associated with resilience toward stress and burnout (Bonanno, 2004; Kelley, 2005; Meiklejohn et al., 2012; Irving, J. A., Dobkin, P. L., & Park, J., 2009; Cohen- Katz, Wiley, Capuano, Baker, & Shapiro, 2005; Mackenzie, Poulin, & Seidman-Carlson, 2006). Mindfulness has also been associated with the enhancement of well-being, since it is known to enable people to disengage from unhealthy, automatic behavioural patterns (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Their view is supported by Brown & Ryan’s (2003) research which indicates that higher levels of mindfulness are correlated with the lower level of stress and mood disturbance, and will therefore contribute to improving resilience.
Mindfulness in relation to self regulation
Bonanno’s (2004) research suggests that all human beings with unhampered mental health have an innate capacity for resilience and well-being even while facing adversity (cited Kelley, T, 2005, p. 265). According to Ciarrochi, Chan, Caputi, and Roberts (2001), difficulty identifying feelings is likely to predispose an individual to poorer mental health. Various studies support the idea that an individual with a greater ability to identify their emotions will be able to regulate those emotions better (cited in Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M., 2001, p. 721). Inherent in mindfulness approaches is the ability to adapt and regulate one’s thought’s, feelings and actions according to the situation (Baliki, Ceha, Apkarian, & Chialvo, 2008; cited in Niemiec, Rashid, Spinella, 2012). Rather than perceiving mental and emotional states as fixed, the mindful approach identifies their impermanent nature and treats them as transitory phenomena (Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Segal, Williams & Teasdale, 2002). The mindful disposition does nonetheless require an ongoing initiative for which regular self-regulation practice in the form of meditation is recommended (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).
Mindfulness in relation to purpose
While meditation cultivates mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Jacobs, T. L., et al. (2011), research done by Jacobs, T. L., et al. also indicates that meditation is known to promote a sense of meaning and purpose in life (2011). Their study suggests that meditation may facilitate an expanded assessment of one’s life as meaningful, which in turn may influence one’s assessment of challenging situations, resulting in improved self regulation and enhanced resilience to stress. This idea is in alignment with former research verifying that the perception of meaning is associated with better stress management (e.g., Okamoto et al., 2007). Additional evidence shows that when stressful situations are infused with a purposeful meaning, the result is more adaptive stress responses and better psychological coping (e.g., Bower et al., 2008). The link between mindfulness and purpose may offer particular value to burnout treatment programmes, since burnout is associated with a deficit in existential meaning and purpose (Frankl, 1963; Längle, 1994). A central purpose in a person’s life is suggested to influence the thoughts, emotions, and actions of that person, as well as enhance that person’s resiliency in stressful situations (cited in McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). There are apparently similar outcomes when comparing approaches that are motivated by a strong sense of purpose and those of mindfulness in contrast to no sense of purpose or mindlessness. Comparing the research cited in McKnight & Kashdan (2009) on purpose with that cited in Malinowski (2008) on mindfulness; common outcomes appear to be: an improved ability to understand and cope with stress, enhanced resilience, more adaptable self regulation, as well as a generally elevated psychological, physical, and social well-being. In addition to considering the complimentary factors that are associated with both purpose and mindfulness, there are attributes of both that are not shared, for example: inherent in purpose is a broader motivational component driving the achievement of goals which support that purpose (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009); while inherent in mindfulness is nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 1990), as well as the possibility of insight into the true nature of existence (Olendzki, 2010). These characteristic differences between purpose and mindfulness can also be viewed as complimentary resources that may be supportive in the pursuit of dealing holistically with stress issues and burnout. In their discussion on the attributes of purpose, McKnight & Kashdan suggest that people with access to a large set of self-regulatory tools (like MBSR techniques, for example), with an ability to flexibly apply them, are in an optimal position to navigate the challenges of life and sustain high levels of healthy functioning (2009).
Mindfulness in relation to meditation
Mindfulness meditation does not aim to change us in any way, but rather helps us to be more unconditionally present with our current experience in the moment. This form of meditation is normally practised seated, although mindful awareness is not only reserved for sitting meditations, but also intended to be brought to all tasks and interactions throughout each day in order to integrate mindfulness into one’s life. Historically, mindfulness is a concept stemming from ancient Buddhist philosophy (Bhikkhu, 2010). Today it is most common through MBSR – an 8 week programme that teaches mindfulness meditation developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help people cope better and be more at ease in their life (C.R.U.K. n.d).
Since both resilience and self regulation have been shown to stem from purpose as well as mindfulness, which in turn arises from meditation, it appears as if meditation should be central in approaches to treating stress and burnout. It may be argued that mindfulness does not depend on meditation. Mindfulness can also arise from consciously selected perspectives that enable one to evaluate one’s identity with thoughts, emotions and sensations, and to experience them simply as cognitive events, however this approach requires self-knowledge, realizing larger patterns of meaning, and taking a wider view (Niemiec, Rashid, Spinella, 2012). Such a “metacognitive perspective” (Teasdale, 1999) makes it possible to see the aspects of any experience as temporary phenomena rather than creating an identity from them, but such an aptitude might be more difficult to achieve in challenging situations without it being embodied via regular meditation. Since meditation is an intrinsic part of MBSR, there is further evidence that using meditation helps to embed mindfulness so that it becomes the most reflexive and enduring state, especially in situations that might otherwise be overwhelmingly stressful. The stress reducing benefits of meditation coupled with establishing purpose in life suggests that the meditation approach to attaining mindfulness is especially well suited to stress and burnout treatment programmes.
Whether it be the practice of MBSR or traditional meditation in general, many people who could benefit from such a discipline are missing out on it for a variety of reasons that might include misunderstanding what meditation is, or failure to recognise the benefits, resulting in a lack of motivation to practice any form of meditation, or simply not enough time to learn meditation and practice it regularly. For such people the demystification of meditation and practical advantages of simple meditation skills, once brought to their attention, might be seen as a solution to help them deal more effectively with daily challenges. While it might not be the goal of meditation to fix problems, bringing awareness of meditation’s stress reducing and improved coping benefits (Katz et al. 2005) to those who face stress and burnout might encourage such people to consider meditation as a worthwhile complimentary approach. What might further assist people to choose meditation could be awareness of effective meditation methods that are easy and practical to apply in the different contexts of life. An example of such an approach is the technique to bring about open awareness, which activates the body’s natural state of relaxation, while sharpening one’s sensory acuity, reducing self talk, as well as depotentiating fear and stress reactions (Hanson, 2011; Overdurf, 2013). Those who are familiar with the technique to facilitate open awareness report that it takes only a few minutes to learn, it can be applied in any place at any time of day, and the benefits of using it begin to take effect within a few seconds of applying the technique (reported by Transpersonal Coach course participants). On this basis it is hypothesised that open awareness may be of particular use to busy people who don’t have time to formally meditate, or those who are sceptical of Eastern practices, including those who might be at risk of being effected by stress or burnout. Furthermore, I have personally found that the establishment of open awareness serves as a useful expediency to access deeper levels of meditation, and when brought to one’s tasks and interactions, it facilitates a mindful approach.
In conclusion, mindfulness, especially when integrated through forms of meditation appears to be a valuable aspect of programmes that intend to promote well-being. Evidence suggests that meditation and MBSR techniques promote a sense of purpose, the ability to self regulate and the enhancement of resilience — three interrelated aspects that have been shown to be constructive in the treatment of overwhelming stress and burnout. Niemiec, Rashid & Spinella, (2012) point out that the integration of mindfulness may well be a formula to cultivate productive engagement in work, an expanded sense of meaning and purpose, enhanced physical and psychological well-being, and improved relationships. The achievement of mindfulness may counteract the effect of stressors that can lead to burnout, thus mindfulness practices probably will contribute to the alleviation of burnout symptoms and possibly even play a significant role in burnout prevention.
Written by Jevon Dangeli – Transpersonal Coach, MSc Transpersonal Psychology
Related article – Bouncing back from burnout
Free resource – The Burnout Self Diagnostic Tool
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