If you’re like many Americans, you probably work long hours and take few vacations. It’s a recipe for burnout.
But what if there were a way to be successful without pushing yourself to the brink?
Psychologist Emma Seppala has studied ways to help people who are chronically stressed out, and her findings could help many of us live healthier and happier lives without sacrificing our productivity.
She outlines some of these findings in her new book, “The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.“
A state of constant stress
American culture is driven by a Puritan work ethic, Seppala told Business Insider. As a result of this, “we’re seeing really high levels of burnout and disengagement,” she said.
One of the main problems with working nonstop and feeling stressed out is that this behavior can activate our sympathetic nervous system — aka the “fight-or-flight” response.
And while some stress may be good for you in the short term, in the long term it’s been linked to all sorts of terrible things, like an increased risk of mental disorders and heart disease. Some studies suggest it may also increase your risk of some cancers, like melanoma.
Luckily, Seppala has identified one strategy that’s especially helpful for reducing stress: meditation. Meditation exercises can tap into our parasympathetic, or “rest-and-digest” system. And a growing body of evidence supports this idea.
The benefits of meditation
In 2014, Seppala and her colleagues did a study where they tried a meditation intervention for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who were suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD).
They randomly assigned 11 vets to take part in a week of Sudarshan Kriya yoga, a group-based form of meditation that involves several types of breathing exercises mixed with periods of discussion and stretching. (During the study week, one person dropped out of the group because he said he didn’t like it.) Another 10 vets were not assigned to do the meditation, for comparison.
The researchers measured the veterans’ startle reflex and breathing rate before and after the one-week study period. The veterans also filled out online questionnaires one month and one year after the study. Ten people from each group filled out the questionnaire after one month; nine people from the meditation group and eight from the comparison group filled it out after a year.
The participants who took part in the meditation reported fewer PTSD symptoms and anxiety and had a slower breathing rate compared with before the study, whereas the comparison group didn’t experience these benefits.
Although it was small, the study findings suggest that certain types of meditation may be helpful in helping to reduce stress and anxiety in a chronically stressed population, namely, veterans.
How to manage your energy
Other research suggests meditation could have similar effects in healthy people, too.
It all comes down to managing your energy, Seppala said. She suggests taking time to close your eyes, do some breathing exercises, or taking a walk as a way to regain your cool. And the benefits go beyond avoiding burnout:
“If you take care of yourself, are less future-focused and more present, take more time off, and nurture relationships, you end up being more productive, more charismatic, and more creative,” she said.