ACT for Burnout: Present Moment Exercises


Key Points

  1. Understanding patterns of behavior through present moment awareness exercises is a useful way to identify the experiences that lead to burnout.
  2. Present moment awareness exercises, such as counting while breathing, brushing teeth with the non-dominant hand, and exercises around identifying moments, can slow down the wandering mind and promote presence.
  3. Recording such moments and understanding what thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations come with them provides targets for defusion.

No Time Like the Present

Once creative hopelessness has been acknowledged and values clarified, we help clients to notice what’s happening in real time, then how to change their behavior in response, and sit with difficult experiences. Present moment awareness exercises can be practiced in and outside of session, and are invaluable when confronting burnout.

Burnout involves a lot of procrastination, apathy, and escaping into the mind as with Jack’s fantasies. So it’s important for clients to have experiences that take them into a moment. This can be as simple as the client putting their hands on their chest and belly and breathing up to a count of 10, one count for each inhale and each exhale.

The goal isn’t to breathe in a certain way, or be an attention champion, but just to be aware. Not modifying the breath in any way, but noticing its pace and depth, and the way the body moves. Clients can set a reminder and do it a couple of times a day for a minute or two. It allows them to slow down and reconnect with the moment.

Another exercise is doing a simple task and noticing what that experience is like. As Jack’s mind was racing in the morning, he was asked to brush his teeth with his non-dominant hand, which is harder than it may sound and requires closer attention than usual. This is a simple exercise which interrupts something very routine or small to create pausing, focusing, and noticing movement and sensations while not being so absorbed by thoughts.

Taking the Measure of Moments

For understanding patterns of behavior, we identify meaningful moments. For Jack, those were first thing in the morning and stopping at the end of the day. He’d set a time he was going to stop working, then work way past it. He was asked to notice the moment he actually made the decision to stop. At first he said he couldn’t. So he was asked to look back on that moment, and notice what he remembered.

Sometimes people struggle to capture thoughts, feelings, and decisions in the moment, but they can manage a post-mortem. Jack remembered writing an email and noticing what time it was. He thought he just had to finish the email before stopping work, but then someone called and he felt he had to answer. His mind was telling him what he must do rather than consciously deciding not to honor the end time for the day.

Once we have information about a few different moments, we explore them in session. If Jack thought about not answering that call, or messaging to schedule a call for the following day as he was off the clock, what happened? He felt fear that he was going to get in trouble, due to his belief that CEOs are supposed to be available 24/7.

Start Simple

Paying attention to these moments tells us what thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations we need to practice getting space from, to defuse from. Without capturing such snapshots, we can only guess. It’s recommended that clients write them down, in their notes app or whatever works for them. If a therapist is comfortable with it, the client can email things they notice for the therapist to keep on file. However it’s arranged, the client tracks what’s happening so you can decide in session what to pay attention to.

Jack was asked to pay attention to times when he wasn’t working. When he sat down to dinner with his wife, it was hard for him to be present because his mind was constantly distracted by work tasks, or he had no energy left. When talking to others outside work, he couldn’t pay attention, and had nothing left to give.

He was guided to pause in such moments and practice noticing. What was his mind telling him? What did he feel in his body? Did he have urges to check his email or go to sleep? Start with whatever internal experience is easiest for a client to notice. For some, noticing thoughts is easy because their mind is talking all the time, but not so fast they can’t catch it. Notice a thought, and how they feel in that moment because of it. What memory is it associated with?

Other clients might be very aware of physical sensations: their hands clenching, gut churning, feeling like they have a big weight on their chest. What does that feel like? Can they describe that experience, then be curious about what their mind says in that moment? Others feel fatigue, exhaustion, and numbness. Again, go into detail. Does it feel like your body is being weighed down by sandbags, or like there’s a film between you and the world? Identify the thing clients find it easiest to connect to, which you’ll notice as you’re talking with them.

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ACT for Burnout: Present Moment Exercises

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