There is a lot of talk about stress and burnout these days, and so this month I’d like to focus on the role that unmanaged emotional energy plays in the stress and burnout cycle. I’d like to talk about using breathwork to prevent emotional exhaustion and to recover from it, because unmanaged emotional energy may be the biggest single cause of stress and burnout in general.
The thing about emotional exhaustion is that it’s like boiling a frog: it sneaks up on us. The problem is most people can keep up with the demands of life, they can get ahead and even excel in life, despite being emotionally dead, drained, overwhelmed or exhausted. And so, the worst thing about it is that most people seem to get by just fine in spite of the problem.
For example, therapists or healers may not be experiencing any negative thoughts or feelings due to emotional burnout. In fact, they may be getting amazing results with their clients, who are all very grateful. Yet they are no longer feeling the love or joy, or the thrill or pleasure they once derived from their work.
One of the symptoms is that they no longer naturally and automatically stop to appreciate little moments, such as enjoying the sun on their face when stepping out the door of their office or clinic after a long day or difficult client. They no longer automatically delight in the simple pleasure of being in a body and being connected to nature.
Being helpers, we tend take on other people’s emotional energy, and so we need to develop skills in handling and processing and venting this energy. And this is an issue not just for helpers and healers, but for anyone who works with people. It affects leaders of all kinds: managers, school teachers, artists, employers, musicians, coaches, and parents.
If you think about it, dealing with just one person’s emotions can be overwhelming, never mind having to deal with dozens or even hundreds of clients, students, partners or employees every day. In these kinds of relationships, we tend to give freely of our energy. And when it returns or when we take it back, it comes with other people’s energy attached to it.
My friend and teacher Leonard Orr called this phenomenon “emotional energy pollution.” And to deal with it, we need to develop a practice of clearing away emotional energy at the end of each day. And we need to be skillful at managing, transforming or venting this energy as it arises while we move along through our day.
Basically, an emotion is the activation, acceleration or intensification of energy, and so we need to be conscious and in touch with our energy, and able to contain, channel or manage our emotions if we are going to remain healthy and happy.
We can stay ahead of emotional burnout by being conscious of our own feelings and sensations while we are communicating with clients, students, authorities, loved ones, and others. We want to be using the breath to awaken heart intelligence and body intelligence, and not rely on mind intelligence alone.
We need to catch ourselves as soon as we get knocked off center and we need to use the breath to return to a place of ease and clarity, of comfort and pleasure, of passion, enthusiasm, peace and inspiration, regardless of the emotional situation. And this takes practice.
We can also stay ahead of the problem by doing some conscious breathing before a challenging, difficult or stressful event, meeting, conversation, situation, performance or presentation. Many people use “Box Breathing,” the “Triangle Breath,” or circular breathing for this.
Most of us have intuitively developed methods and strategies for dealing with negative emotional energy. For example: positive self-talk, movement and massage, visualization, guided imagery, meditation, relaxation, rest and recovery rituals, recreation and vacation activities.
As breathworkers we make use of these tried and true strategies, but more importantly we incorporate or integrate breathwork into them. We turn to our two core techniques: the conscious sigh of relief and the connected breathing rhythm. We blend our breathing practice into our meditations, visualizations, exercises and re-boot activities.
Dr. Ela Manga in her book, “Breathe: Strategizing Energy in the Age of Burnout” offers us a number of brilliant practices that she terms “recovery loops.” And I suggest that you integrate these recovery loops into your everyday life.
In my own experience, if I get emotionally upset, if I indulge in an emotional disturbance or get “frazzled,” my body, my thinking, my intuition, my creative abilities, and the strength and resilience of my immune system are immediately affected. Not only that, even my electronic devices, my computer, cell phone, and my internet signal are affected!
And so in many ways, we can no longer afford this kind of emotional static in our system. It blocks us from being in our heart. It dulls our ability to sense subtle energy. And it gradually chips away at the joy and brightness in our lives.
We can be missing the effect that it has on us… not knowing that we are missing opportunities, attracting or not attracting certain people and situations… we can take a wrong turn, we can overlook sources of pleasure and underestimate our inner resources.
Most people have two choices when it comes to emotions: suppress them or express them. A third option is to integrate them. Learn to channel that energy through the breath, which takes the stress off the body and the mind. Learn to breathe into your emotions, to relax into them, to absorb and integrate and effectively direct the energy that is unlocked by our emotions.
We use two core techniques.
The first is a simple sigh of relief. Take an inhale that is twice as big as normal, then release the exhale with a sigh while deliberately relaxing physical tension and rigid thinking.
The idea is to meet and greet emotional energy as it arises with the breath. The mantra is: “Open and expand. Relax and let go.”
The second core technique is Conscious Connected Breathing. Learn to flow the breath in a smooth steady continuous pattern—like a wheel turning, with no pauses between the breaths.
The inhale connects to the exhale, and the exhale connects to the inhale… Basically, you are continuously giving yourself small sighs of relief. This is the Connected Breathing technique. By keeping your breath moving you are allowing your energy to smoothly and safely flow.
And so, the next time you feel a powerful emotion, the next time your emotional energy is activated, teach your body-mind system a higher, better way to process that energy. Use conscious breathing!
I recommend you apply the basic formula to your practice: 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes at night, and 10 times during the day for 2 minutes each time. (10+10+(10×2)
In addition to regulating your breath, you also need to focus on relaxing the body. Are your fists clenched? Is your jaw tight? Are your shoulders tense? Is there a knot in your stomach? Use the breath and wash these tensions away to keep emotional energy from clogging up your system.
What are you focused on? What are you telling yourself? Use the breath to calm and quiet your mind. Engage in positive uplifting, nurturing self-talk. Extend love and compassion to yourself because we are all doing the best that we can with what we’ve got and where we are. But, make sure to keep growing yourself!