Mind-Body Medicine: An Antidote to Burnout

Audrey’s story is not an unusual one. Twenty-one years of nursing and raising three children were gratifying, yet physically and mentally exhausting. At age 47 she was suffering from back pain, insomnia, irritability and fatigue. But Audrey couldn’t envision retiring soon, not with her kids needing college money, and Audrey helping to support an aging parent. Audrey read an article on ‘burnout’, and began to recognize herself all too clearly. She had taken more sick days recently, felt too many demands from her supervisor and little enthusiasm for her work. By day’s end she was too tired to exercise and had less time to be with her friends. In fact, Audrey found her only satisfaction came from eating and soothing herself with an occasional nighttime drink.

It was purely by coincidence that Audrey noticed a flyer on the hospital bulletin board advertising a course in Mind-Body Medicine. Enrolled in that course, Audrey began a personally transforming journey, not unlike others who have found solace in the relatively new field of Mind-Body Medicine.

Mind-Body Medicine is perhaps the most well researched and evidence-based area of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Although the concept of the linkage between mind, body and spirit was recognized as far back as Hippocrates’ time, the scientific proof of that linkage has been demonstrated over the past three decades. Now there is clear evidence that our immune, endocrine and nervous systems communicate with each other directly, and that these systems can actually make each other’s chemical messengers. Because of this interdependence, belief systems and emotional well being end up affecting our physical health and visa versa. Clinical studies have proven this relationship. For example, researchers at Ohio State University have shown that medical students’ immune systems are suppressed prior to examinations, as are those of spouses in stressful marriages. The same researchers have demonstrated that spouses of Alzheimer’s patients have slower wound healing times.

We also have evidence that patients who are in mind-body skills group programs show improved health. At Harvard’s Mind-Body Medical Institute, women with infertility who practice mind-body techniques in a group setting achieve a 44 per centfertility rate (as opposed to the expected 8-10 per cent rate), and 80 per cent of men with hypertension who attend mind-body groups can reduce their medications, while 20 per cent are off medications entirely. There have been replicated studies showing that women with metastatic breast cancer involved in mind-body groups live longer than those without such treatments, as do men with malignant melanoma, and with life-threatening heart disease. As a result of these research studies and dozens more, clinicians at hospitals such as Georgetown Medical Center and the UCSF Medical Center have started mind-body skills programs for health care professionals. These programs benefit the health of their staff, protect them from burnout, and give them skills to teach their own patients. Like their patients, most health care professionals have found these programs to be personally transforming.

Many health-care professionals in Canada are stretched to their limits. Ideas are raised as how to ‘fix’ the system. While trying to fix or cure a problem has become an established medical model, Mind-Body Medicine is more concerned with healing. Healing is an internal process, which allows one to become vulnerable to one’s own emotions, thoughts, sensations and spirituality in a non-judgmental way. Healing is about re-establishing purpose in one’s life and connecting with others. It is about celebrating one’s life despite trauma at work and home. Healing is about learning responsible tools of self-care, to allow one to cope.

Audrey found coping skills through a mind-body group program. She learned relaxation skills and biofeedback, discovered the link between emotional awareness and health, and found cognitive strategies to think about herself and her life in a positive way. Audrey began to use a journal, improved her diet and sleep hygiene, became re-acquainted with her spiritual needs, and enjoyed exercises in imagery, music and movement awareness. Audrey found consolation in hearing about common issues shared by colleagues in her groups -and she felt less alone. Audrey’s sense of humour returned, and she found herself leaving for work in the morning to an imperfect situation, but with a sense of wholeness.

The author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen has written, “Perhaps wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible, and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.” Perhaps this is the wisdom with which we need to cope as health care professionals.