Manage Stress, Avoid Burnout

Mantram repetition: A portable, mindful, contemplative practice for the workplace

Have you ever been at work and wanted to be on vacation, instead? Have you ever wished that you could “beam me up, Scotty” and be transported instantly to another place and time? Have you longed for some instant rest and relaxation?

Theoretically, we all have the capacity to take a “time out,” to turn our attention to that calm, inner space within us—a place of calm, peace, and inner wholeness. But practically, few of us u have trained our attention like a laser beam to tap into our inner spiritual resources such as wellbeing, compassion, altruism, love, peace, hope, goodness, and kindness.

As human beings, we are made up of more than our bodies and minds—we also have a spirit with unlimited spiritual resources that are available to us all the time, whether we know it or not. But because our attention is scattered and our minds are whirling out of control, it seems impossible to find peace amidst our crazy, busy workplaces. Furthermore, living with today’s technology of smart phones, email, text messaging, plus ever expanding information overload, makes it even harder for us to focus our attention and be present in each moment of our day.

There is a solution, albeit a tiny, but powerful one: silent repetition of a mantram (also known as mantra). Easwaran defines a mantram as “the living symbol of the profoundest reality that the human being can conceive of, the highest power that we can respond to and love.” It’s practical because it can be repeated silently at any time or any place. It allows us to take a momentary “time out” from life. Some have called it a “portable stress buster” or “pause button for the mind.” Historically, nearly every spiritual or wisdom tradition has discovered that by repeating certain holy, sacred words containing a “divine charge,” we humans have the capacity to calm our minds and bodies, and refresh our spirits.

How it works

There are several explanations for how mantram repetition works. On one level, repeating a mantram is merely redirecting attention away from any troubling thoughts, worries, or negative feelings. In this case, a mantram serves as a virtual “eraser for the mind” by replacing negative thoughts with positive, sacred ones. On another level, when repeating a mantram over and over, we are creating a new spiritual pathway. The volume of all other thoughts begins to subside. We can quiet and calm our minds by focusing on a greater power, thus allowing greater access to our inner reservoir of resources.

For some, mantram repetition serves as a non-pharmacological sleeping pill. Over time, it can then be practiced or repeated silently during the day, at any time, any place, under any circumstances. You can use it at nonstressful times such as while waiting in line or waiting for an elevator, while walking or to focus attention before setting up medications, preparing for a procedure, or before meeting a new patient or family. But you can also use it to interrupt unwanted, ruminating thoughts; angry or upsetting reactions; or irritability and annoyance. It’s like a hot tub for the mind!


Supporting evidence

Now some of you may need more evidence before attempting this simple practice. Indeed, it sounds too good to be true. But when you select a word or phrase like Rama (an invitation for peace used by Mahatma Gandhi), Come Lord Jesus (a short prayer) or My God and My All (selected by Saint Francis of Assisi), Om Mani Padme Hum (a Buddhist invitation to one’s higher Self in the lotus of the heart), So Hum (Hindu for I am That), or Ribono Shel Olam (Jewish for Lord of the Universe)—and you repeat it to yourself every night before falling asleep, you will soon discover that it creates a powerful, lasting mind-body-spiritual connection. The value of the mantram grows from the repetition of sending it deeper into your consciousness.

Research has shown that mantram repetition can help veterans manage symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including nightmares, flashbacks, and road rage. Mantram repetition has also been used by family caregivers of loved ones with dementia, and nurses have reported its benefits in the workplace when dealing with stressful situations. Healthcare providers have also reported reductions in exhaustion and improvements in professional efficacy.

Choosing your mantram

Tips for choosing your own mantram include the following:

  • Choose a traditional word or phrase from one of the great wisdom traditions—something that has lasted over time.
  • Don’t make up your own. Use a sacred, hallowed phrase that has a proven track record. A mantram is more than an affirmation, motto, slogan, or positive self-talk.
  • Allow several days and weeks to “try one on for size.” Give it a test drive. If you like it, keep it.
  • Once you select your mantram, never change it. Keep the same mantram for the rest of your life. The longer you repeat it, the stronger and more effective it becomes.

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have instant success in relaxing. At first, the process of repeating a mantram may seem mechanical, artificial, or even silly. You might find your mind resisting the practice because it seems too simplistic. However, with sustained commitment, you will notice and experience a change in your reactivity to stressful events. You’ll become more aware of your thoughts and realize that you have a choice when faced with a stressor. You’ll also be able to calm yourself more quickly. This is the beginning of “re-wiring” your thoughts and experiencing a pause—a “mini” vacation. Such experiences will motivate you to continue practicing. The final stage is making mantram repetition a habit. Your mantram will automatically come to you in moments of relaxation as well as moments of stress. It becomes your “staff of life,” as Mahatma Gandhi said.

Mantram repetition is a portable, invisible, inexpensive, non-toxic, rapid focus tool for the mind. It is a valuable coping skill for every nurse and any healthcare provider. There is growing evidence for its efficacy to manage symptoms and behaviors in a variety of circumstances for patients and families, too. For more information, see www.easwaran.org or www.jillbormann.com.

Jill Bormann is a research scientist at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, a clinical professor at the University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing and Health Sciences, and an adjunct associate professor at the San Diego State University School of Nursing.

Selected references

Bormann JE, Hurst S, Kelly A. Responses to mantram repetition program from veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder: a qualitative analysis. JRRD. 2013;50(6):769-84.

Bormann JE, Thorp SR, Wetherell JL, et al. Meditation-based mantram intervention for veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized trial. Psychol Trauma: Theory Res Prac Policy. 2013;5(3):259-67.

Bormann JE, Warren KA, Regalbuto L, et al. A spiritually-based caregiver intervention with telephone delivery for family caregivers of veterans with dementia. J Fam Comm Health. 2009;32(4):345-53.

Easwaran E. The Mantram Handbook. 5th ed. Tomales, Calif: Nilgiri Press; 2008.

Leary S, Bormann JE, Smith TL, et al. Internet-delivered mantram repetition program for burnout in healthcare workers. Podium presentation at the Western Institute of Nursing 46th Annual Communicating Nursing Research Conference, Anaheim, CA, April 10-13, 2013.

Richards TA, Oman D, Hedberg J, et al. A qualitative examination of a spiritually-based intervention and self-management in the workplace. Nurs Sci Quart. 2009;19(3);231-39.

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