As discussed last week in last week’s blog, international aid and development workers work in some of the most challenging contexts globally. They are vulnerable to burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, which also similarly can affect a wide array of other professions, including police, emergency room personnel, fire fighters, EMTs, shelter staff, social workers, teachers, legal professions, journalists, etc. The nature of some of these professions, combined with one’s life choices, can result in living life in a continually up-regulated state of sympathetic dominance, or the “fight or flight” nervous system.
The stress response has been shown to have a similar effect on the brain as trauma and hence practices like interoceptive based yoga, mindfulness, breath, meditation and gratitude practices can be essential part of cultivating resilience. By building one’s own resources they can better meet their environment, and weather the peaks and valleys of life with more presence and connection to one’s true self and state of being.
As an aid worker living overseas for many years, I had to develop my own self-care program given the limited availability to access services like yoga and meditation classes or psychosocial care. A key tool I started with was meditation and mindfulness practices, which can be done anywhere. Sound crazy? We can be mindful in all our day to day activities, even washing dishes, and we can do moving meditations or sitting meditations, it’s even become so popular that we have apps to guide us in meditation.
Getting in Touch With Your Vagus Nerve
Another cornerstone to my toolbox is yoga nidra, or “yogic sleep.” Some yoga nidra programs mention that 30 minutes of yoga nidra is equivalent to 4 hours of sleep in terms of brain activity, other say 20 minutes is equivalent to 1 hour, but what is the science behind it? New studies in Copenhagen using brain scans and electroencephalograph (EEG) show that nidra practices increase theta activity, which can improve our intuition and creativity, and it activates different parts of the brain related to emotional, visual and tacticle processing, as well as one’s sense of self.
Such areas are often negatively affected by the continual up-regulation of the nervous system which can have unintended impacts over time on our neural pathways. These impacts often feed a cycle of stress, disrupting not only one’s emotional state, but also our immune system, our ability to function in the work place and maintain inter-personal relationships. The result over time can be a narrower window of tolerance and weaker vagal tone.
Hence as a person who is often upregulated, another key tool in my toolbox is stimulating the Vagus nerve to downregulate, and strengthening vagal tone. The vagus nerve is not only the longest nerve in the body but it also has one of the most important jobs – it’s the main implementer for the parasympathetic system, or our ‘rest and digest’ system. It innervates the heart and regulates many of the body’s internal organ systems, most of which operate at a subconscious level like digestion, glands, heart, lungs, etc.
There are many ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, but one of the more effective ways is to target the stomach where there is the largest body of nerve endings. This can be done by laying on the stomach with a rolled-up blanket or using another implement, such as the Coregous ball, starting with small increments of time and building up from there. Other great ways to stimulate the nerve can be though the ocular endings with eye movements or using an app, or activating the nerve endings in the shoulder – which can be done very easily with an ALPHA ball against a column or an original Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Ball on a block.
Meditation and Restoration
Compassion and empathy fatigue, which affect many in caregiving professions, is something that gratitude practices, like Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) can support – hence it is yet another tool in my box of goodies! Simple gratitude practices, like making lists each day or each week, can be an easy way to start integrating positive attention to what is working well in life. Those who have tried LKM often feel the effects of it, but the science behind why it works demonstrates how these practices produce impacts in the brain which can combat burnout, empathy/compassion fatigue, and stress.
Steven Richardson’s research demonstrated that LKM practices can activate the insula and the temporal parietal juncture (TBJ) areas which process empathy, make us cognizant of our emotional and physical present-moment experiences as well as attune to emotional states of others. Another study by Barbara Fredrickon found that LKM practiced over a 9-week period demonstrated the immense impact that LKM can have on changing a person’s sense of life experience. Her study found that LKM practices allowed one to experience a wider range of positive emotions, such as hope, pride, amusement, love, gratitude, and this in turn produced personal resources, such as feeling social support, increased mindfulness or purpose in life, and in turn led to incremental increases in life satisfaction.
So, if all this research is out there, why not make sure you have a 30-minute guided yoga nidra practice, a 5 minutes Coregous practice and a 7-minute loving kindness meditation handy on your phone? My best advice is: create a self-care plan with time bound goals, consider what activities or exercises bring you back into equilibrium, remembering that sometimes you may have to up-regulate to do so, and consult the self-care wheel to help you define self-care goals in all facets of your life.
 Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, Pek J, Finkel SM. Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2008;95(5):1045-1062. doi:10.1037/a0013262.