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Yoga-informed self-care strategies to help counselors avoid burnout

By Olivia Schnur April 5, 2021

When I was in graduate school, burnout seemed like something that would never happen to me. I worked out regularly, ate healthy, and had a well-rounded social life and plenty of hobbies. I thought self-care was that simple.

Fast-forward 10 months into my career: I quit my first professional counseling job to do a yoga teacher training and move to Australia. I was burned out and swore I would never return to counseling.

As it turns out, the yoga teacher training was the exact thing I needed to make my safe return to counseling. I would like to share with my fellow counselors some tips and tricks I learned along the way that go beyond bubble baths and workout plans. These tips are for anyone regardless of fitness level, religious affiliation, age or experience.

Evidence-based breathing

Several breathing techniques have an evidence base to support their effectiveness. I share them first because I know, if you are anything like me, you want solutions and you want them now. I do encourage you to notice how each practice makes you feel, however. So many things that professional counselors do are results-driven; for once, allow yourself to do something simply because it feels good.

Deep belly breathing: Most people know the benefits of deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing). Breathing into the low belly stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and massages the vagus nerve. It is the quickest way to return to a state of calm, and yet it seems to be the most often overlooked form of self-care.

Deep belly breathing can be done anytime and anywhere. That being said, people often do not know how to breathe into their lower lungs. To begin, practice lying on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Notice where the breath flows. It can be helpful to imagine blowing up your stomach like a balloon as you inhale and deflating it as you exhale.

Once you master this technique, you can start to do it sitting up. This is where the real magic happens. You can deep belly breathe in session, at your desk or even in a boring Zoom meeting that definitely could have been an email. It may seem simple, but it is the foundation for every other breathing technique.

Breath retention: Breath retention should be done with caution. It can be extremely helpful for individuals who experience anxiety and panic attacks. Paradoxically, it can be quite anxiety-producing.

Breath retention is the practice of holding the breath. It can be done at the top of an inhale or the bottom of an exhale. For the least amount of anxiety, begin by practicing holding at the top of the inhale.

To begin, take a few deep breaths into the low belly. Start counting the number of seconds it takes to inhale and exhale and try to make them even. Then, at the top of the inhale, hold for one second before exhaling.

You can experiment by holding your breath longer as you become more advanced. Try to find the edge just before you reach your window of tolerance. Anxiety is not the goal. Instead, attempt to calm the mind and find comfort in the pause between the inhale and exhale. Trust that the next breath will always come.

4-7-8 breathing: Once you have practiced deep belly breathing and breath retention, you can put them both together and discover the magic of 4-7-8. In this technique, you inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and breathe out for a count of 8.

Notice, this is a practice of breathing deeply into the low belly combined with holding the breath. Another great way to stimulate vagal tone and tap into the parasympathetic nervous system is extending the exhale for twice as long as the inhale. This breathing technique has it all.

Yoga-informed strategies

As both a yoga teacher and reiki healer, I have learned strategies to release the energy that is exchanged between students and teachers in a session or class. Yet, I was never taught how to deal with the spiritual and energetic exchange that occurs with my counseling clients. I believe this is what led to my experience with burnout. Counselors, just like energy workers and yoga teachers, need to have practices in place to let go of any lingering energy after a therapy session is complete.

In the years since I began my yoga teacher training, I have picked up several yoga techniques that I have integrated into my self-care practice. A few of them come from my reiki training, which is a form of energy healing. While these techniques are not evidence-based, I once again encourage you to feel into them and choose what feels right. Feel free to modify in a way that meets your unique needs.

Energy sweeping: Energy sweeping is a reiki technique. However, it is similar to a self-care technique utilized in Lisa Dion’s Synergistic Play Therapy. The longer I work in both the yoga and counseling fields, the more similarities I discover.

This is a mental and physical exercise for sweeping energy from the body. This can be a great practice at the end of the day for counselors or used between each client session for a quick reset. It might feel a little odd at first. I simply double-check that my door is shut before I start.

Begin by placing the palms of your hands at the top of your head. Start making sweeping motions moving down and out. Work your way down your body with gentle sweeps. When you get to the toes, brush the last of the energy toward a window or door and imagine it leaving your body. You can flick your fingers like you are flicking water off your hands.

Alternate nostril breathing: As an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist certified through the EMDR International Association, I love anything bilateral. Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) is said to connect both hemispheres of the brain. It is also meant to balance the energies of the body. When I teach this breathing technique, I call it a “911” breath. A few moments with this breathing technique can rescue me from any mental state.

To start, get in a comfortable seated position. Bring your right hand to your nose and rest your left hand on your lap. Place your ring finger over your left nostril and your thumb over your right. Begin by breathing deeply into the belly through both nostrils. Then, block the left nostril with your ring finger and breathe in through the right. Switch and block the right nostril with your thumb while breathing out through your left. Breathe in through the left and switch again.

Complete a full breath cycle (inhale and exhale) through each nostril. Repeat this as many times as necessary to feel a state change. I typically find one to five minutes to be sufficient. End by breathing out through the right nostril, placing your hands on your lap and resuming a normal breath. Check out my website for a guided alternate nostril breath practice at oliviaschnur.com.

Breath of Union: There are still moments when I find myself completely depleted after a long week. When I become too busy or distracted to complete these small self-care rituals each day, I can lose myself rather quickly. The Breath of Union is another reiki practice that has helped me return to myself, time and time again.

To begin, bend your elbows at your sides with your right palm facing up and your left palm facing down. As you inhale, imagine energy moving up from the Earth and down from the cosmos. You can modify your sources to align with your belief system.

Hold the breath in and bring the hands together at the heart, making three clockwise circles. As you exhale, return the arms to the sides of the body, but this time the left hand faces up and the right hand faces down. Inhale and circle the hands over the heart three times clockwise, once more. Exhale and face the right palm up and left palm down. Your hands will be in the same position as when you started.

That is one cycle. Complete the cycle a minimum of three times. Continue as long as you would like, but stop if you start to feel dizzy, nauseous or tired. Ideally, you will begin to feel more balanced after the first cycle. 

Make it a ritual

The biggest lesson I learned from experiencing burnout is that self-care is not something that can be saved until the end of the day or week. Self-care does require lifestyle commitments such as a healthy diet, exercise, relaxation and fun. However, no self-care routine is complete without little life hacks that reset the nervous system and prepare you for yet another hour of energy exchange.

Every one of these self-care strategies can be done in less than five minutes. While I know that the minutes between client sessions are precious, save a few of them to breathe and reconnect to yourself. At the very least, take five minutes at the end of the day to recenter and breathe before rushing out of the office.

Aim to integrate at least one to two of these practices into your daily routine. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Practice deep belly breathing while you type your progress notes.
  • Try alternate nostril breathing after crisis sessions or challenging days.
  • End the workday with a quick energy sweep so you can leave work at work and be present for the rest of your evening.
  • Practice the Breath of Union on the weekends to reconnect to your purpose, higher power or source.

Whatever method works for you, make it sacred. This small routine is your mindful moment to reconnect to yourself. You are replenishing your soul so you can complete your mission on this earth to help and heal others.

Practical and ethical concerns

Most of these exercises can be done on your own. However, you should consider your unique health profile before beginning any of these exercises. You may choose to work with a yoga teacher or follow a guided online video.

To ethically and responsibly share these practices with clients, you should first receive formal training in the practice of yoga. Counselors should pay particular attention to Standard C.2. Professional Competence in the ACA Code of Ethics. Counselors interested in new specialty areas of practice are encouraged to seek education, training and supervised experience.

I began my formal training by completing a trauma-sensitive yoga certificate with Street Yoga. A trauma-sensitive yoga training may be sufficient to begin introducing breathwork into clinical sessions. However, for a comprehensive understanding of yoga anatomy, philosophy and ethics, I recommend a 200-hour yoga teacher training. The registering body for yoga teachers is Yoga Alliance, which has its own ethical code that yoga teachers must follow.

Lastly, I began the Usui Shiki Ryoho reiki training in 2019. I completed my level 1 with Jai Westgard in Iowa City, Iowa. I completed my level 2 with Mikah Jaschke in Decorah, Iowa. The registering body for reiki practitioners is the International Association of Reiki Professionals.

You do not need any formal training to care for yourself, however. Yoga and reiki are holistic, natural ways to attend to your emotional, mental, physical and spiritual self-care. I hope these simple yoga-informed self-care strategies will serve as the shift that allows you to safely and effectively continue this life-changing work as a professional counselor for years to come.

 

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Olivia Schnur is a licensed mental health counselor in Iowa and a certified EMDR therapist. Additionally, she is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher and a level 2 reiki practitioner. She currently offers online yoga and reiki at oliviaschnur.com. Contact her at olivia@oliviaschnur.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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