Yoga to Heal the Healer

Stressed out on the job? You’re not alone: 83 percent of Americans feel pressure from work, according to a recent Work Stress Survey. Among the most stressful occupations are doctors, nurses, therapists, and others at the front lines of health care.

“These are super-stressful jobs with long hours, unpredictable schedules, and very little time to integrate or process some of the things they experience,” says Angela Wilson, who manages Kripalu’s Frontline Providers program, which studies the impact of yoga and meditation practice on job stress and resilience among health-care providers. “Whether it’s seeing a gunshot victim coming into the ER or sitting with people who have a lot of emotional trauma, seeing this amount of pain and suffering in the world is a huge stressor.“

Edith Johns is a clinical social worker at the Brien Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a community-based mental health and substance abuse clinic. Each day, Edith helps Berkshire residents with addiction or mental illness face challenges such as poverty, incarceration, pregnancy, or eviction. She’s the only Spanish-speaking counselor on staff, so it’s fallen to her to develop the center’s policies for working with Spanish-speaking clients.

“Nothing about this job is easy,” says Edith. “The only way to help is to stay completely present in the moment—to sit with them in their pain and suffering. The moment you turn away from that to ‘how can I fix it?’ you can really lose that connection. My job is all about staying present, and if I don’t do that, I might as well not be there.”

Edith was on the job less than two years when the stress caught up with her. Not only was she was feeling cranky, she was developing a tightness in her chest that made it hard to breathe. So when she heard about the Frontline Providers (FLP) program, she jumped at the chance to participate.

Riding the Wave

The FLP is designed to build resilience and “the ability to navigate through life’s ups and downs with skillfulness and a little more ease, so you don’t get totally sideswiped,” explains Angela. The series of eight weekly sessions for providers emphasizes the importance of self-care and teaches simple yogic techniques to manage stress. Some of these tools are physical: yoga postures or breathing practices that affect the body’s stress response (for example, ways to lower heart rate or blood pressure), which in turn reduces emotional stress. Other techniques are emotional, such as using a yoga-based framework to manage our feelings and reactions, which then affects our body’s physiology.

For Edith, “the Wave” was one of the most powerful techniques she learned. When strong emotions surface, she explains, people tend to either feel shame (“I shouldn’t feel this way”) or get caught up in the emotion (“I always feel this way”). An alternative is to allow the emotion to move through you—like a wave.

“When I was with a client, I’d have some pretty serious Waves,” says Edith. “Most of my clients can’t tolerate distress, so they drink, or [get violent], or run away. The Wave preserved me and was a tool I could bring to my clients.”

Spreading the Stress-Busting

That’s just what Angela was hoping for when she helped develop the FLP: for health-care workers and their clients to benefit from stress-management tools that enable them to practice self-care while caring for others. In a country where 50 percent of hospital patients are affected by medical errors and up to 98,000 patients die each year due to preventable medical error, keeping providers focused, relaxed, and confident has huge repercussions.

The FLP grew out of the yoga programs Angela had designed for trauma survivors. “I started asking, ‘What if we take a step back and help the staff who serve the survivors?’ That started our interest in providing yoga tools for staff, counselors, and doctors. Would that have a trickle-down effect? How would it support our health-care system? It blossomed from there.”

For now, the Frontline Providers Program is offered at Berkshire Medical Center and four Clinical & Support Options, Inc. locations, where the program is being studied to measure its effectiveness. Later this year, Angela hopes to expand to two additional locations—a behavioral health center in the Berkshires and a hospital in Boston.

For Edith, it’s now a priority to weave time into her life for renewal and self-care. “Why is this so rare? We need to do this all the time, like eating breakfast,” she says.

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