As a behavior analyst and a yoga teacher, it’s been difficult to exist in these two contrasting worlds. In behavior analysis, we focus on observable, measurable behaviors and avoid thoughts and feelings (private events) at all costs. Conversely, my yoga trainings have focused on being in the present moment, cultivating acceptance of one’s self, and engaging in conscious actions vs. reactions. The world of yoga and meditation is full of ambiguous terms and gray areas. Just try to operationally define acceptance of one’s self! However, just because the average behavior analyst doesn’t like talking about thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t stop us from experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions from stress, anxiety, and depression to joy, peace, and happiness.
Even if you are not intervening on thoughts and feelings in your clinical work, it’s still something you have to address in yourself. Personally, I can’t deny the powerful effects meditation has had on my life. Even if it’s hard to define in my clinical brain I know I feel more peaceful, less reactive, and overall better when I meditate. Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve felt the beginning stages of burnout that range from feeling overextended, stressed, to emotionally/physically drained. Since this is something we experience, why not take a look at the topics of burnout, stress, and anxiety with some neuroscience through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis? Here are 3 things to know:
- Stress/anxiety is phylogenetic.
The human brain has a negativity bias. Humans as a species have survived because of an ability to avoid dangers that would have resulted in death and approach opportunities that sustained life. However, avoiding is more important than approaching. Think about it, if an ancient human failed to approach an apple tree, there would likely be another opportunity to get food. But if that same human failed to avoid a hungry bear, this would likely result in death. On a neurological level, the brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls and reacts to unpleasant experiences. This could explain why it often feels like an uphill battle to be peaceful and happy. However, this does not mean there is no hope for us, just be aware of this primal negativity bias in your own brain!
- The way you use your mind can change the physical structure of your brain.
This has been validated through many different research studies (references below) with examples like these: When you become a happier person the left frontal region of your brain becomes more active. People who meditate have a more active anterior cingulate cortex (an area of the brain associated with self-regulation). Individuals that meditate tend to have a bigger hippocampus (an area associated with memory and emotion).
- An established habit of meditation can powerfully change your state.
Everyone should have a regular practice of meditation! If you don’t however, there are several quick strategies that can help change your state. Stress/anxiety could be biologically explained as Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activation. When you are in SNS activation you are in fight or flight mode. Deep breathing and focusing on the present moment’s body sensations can take you out of SNS activation and into Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) activation. PNS activation is a state where you feel peaceful, calm, and safe. The whole goal of mindfulness training is to reduce automatic responses and allow you to react non-judgmentally to stressful events. Once you are out of SNS it will likely be easier to make a conscious choice vs. react automatically (maybe in a way you’ll regret later).
The information provided above is just a summary of information found in the resources below. This blog post also stems from a recently presented CEU event at the Verbal Beginnings Center. Ironically, behavior analysts are often the last to address feelings of burnout but are a population that desperately needs to. Intervention, particularly for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders, is both comprehensive and exhaustive – and it needs to be! So, if we can’t change what our job entails then we need to change ourselves. Change our ability to handle and react to stressful situations. Change the way we interact with our coworkers, families, and clients.
Change. Because we can be better versions of ourselves and better clinicians.
By Rebecca Larson, MS, BCBA, LBA, Program Coordinator
Rebecca Larson is a licensed and board-certified behavior analyst. She is also a senior level BCBA at the Verbal Beginnings Center specializing in early intervention, verbal behavior, and function-based treatment. She is currently a doctoral student and holds a MS in developmental disabilities. She is passionate about applying mindfulness and balance to her work life and leads a weekly meditation group at VBC.
Additional Information and Tools
Escaping Burnout Using Meditation (Article): https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/escaping-burnout-using-meditation-to-set-a-different-course/vi-AAEePyT
Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain (Article): https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain
Headspace (App): https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app
Insight timer (App): https://insighttimer.com/
YogaGlo (Website): https://www.glo.com/
Professional Journals and Research
Benn, R., Akiva, T., Arel, S., Roeser, RW. (2012). Mindfulness Training Effects for Parents and Educators of Children With Special Needs. Developmental Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0027537.supp
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hogde, E. A., Bui, E., Marques, L., Metcalf, C. A., Morris, L. K., Robinaugh, D. J., Worthington, J. J., Pollack, M. H., … Simon, N. M. (2013). Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 74(8), 786-92.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S., Singh, J., Curtis, W. J., Wahler, R. G., & McAleavey, K. M. (2007). Mindful parenting decreases aggression and increases social behavior in children with developmental disabilities. Behavior Modification, 31(6), 749-771.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Manikam, R., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, A. N. A., Singh, J., & Singh, A. D. A. (2011). A mindfulness-based strategy for self-management of aggressive behavior in adolescents with autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 1153-1158
Salyers M. P., Hudson C., Morse G., Rollins A. L., Monroe-DeVita M., Wilson C., et al. (2011). BREATHE: a pilot study of a one-day retreat to reduce burnout among mental health professionals. Psychiatry. Serv. 62 214–217. 10.1176/ps.62.2.pss6202_0214