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By Robin Catalano
| October 26, 2017
From our jam-packed days to our perpetually plugged-in nights, stress and its negative effects on our physical health—overeating, headaches, inability to concentrate, disturbed sleep, and an increase in chronic diseases—has become a crisis in modern Western society. How’s this for proof: The hit song “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots recently climbed to No. 1 on iTunes.
But more seriously, a 2015 report by the American Psychological Association noted that 42 percent of adults said they felt nervous or anxious, 37 percent were depressed or sad, and 33 percent suffered from constant worrying. Out in the Berkshires, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge is on a mission to change this with an innovative program it calls RISE.
RISE, an acronym for resilience, integration, self-awareness, and engagement, addresses the needs of professionals in high-stakes, high-stress industries, from nurses to police officers to teachers. The program teaches practical skills to foster mindfulness, mental clarity, better decision making, adaptability, and work-life balance—all of which contribute to improved job performance and life satisfaction—and the Kripalu vision of a more compassionate, connected world.
Classes cover everything from yoga and self-care to breathing and self-awareness exercises, and the sort of exercises any of us can do while sitting at our desks. They also teach how to temper emotional reactions, so we don’t, for example, prematurely hit “send” on an angry e-mail to the boss.
“This is a transformative curriculum—it’s the secret sauce,” says Dr. Barbara Vacarr, a prominent psychologist and CEO of Kripalu. “With the rising interest in mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques, it’s what people have been looking for.”
Developed out of more than a decade of research at the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, in collaboration with researchers associated with Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, RISE represents the distillation of dozens of studies in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals into a practical curriculum. It’s aimed at not only helping the individual, but also at encouraging lasting systemic change within an organization.
So far, RISE has served 718 individuals from 42 organizations. Participants have included public school superintendents and principals, law enforcement officers, medical personnel, and financial and human services workers. For nonprofits, Kripalu covers the cost from scholarship money it’s raised—$250,000 in the Berkshires alone. Programs have been taught as close as Pittsfield, Boston, and New York City, and as far away as Seminole County, Florida. Although the same core theories and techniques are taught in each program, the curriculum is customized to the organization’s needs and goals.
Berkshire Health Systems (BHS) in Pittsfield was one of RISE’s first success stories. Dr. Alex Sabo, Chair and Program Director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, explains that with burnout rampant in the medical field—up to 90 percent of doctors and 40 percent of nurses routinely report emotional exhaustion, feeling of going through the motions, and loss of compassion for oneself and others that are typical of burnout—he believed RISE could make a big difference for his organization.
Under Kripalu’s guidance, Sabo’s team put together a randomized trial. Over the course of 10 weeks, once each week, a group of 20 medical professionals used stress-reducing cognitive behavior therapy techniques adapted from those developed for women with breast cancer. Another group of 20 used Kripalu yoga, meditation, and mindfulness techniques.
The results were eye-opening. “Cognitive behavior therapy has the capacity to click in a little more quickly,” Sabo says. “Mindfulness and yoga take a little longer to set in, but last longer and have a more positive effect on the health of the body.”
Seventy percent of Sabo’s managers use breathing techniques they’ve learned in class to stay calm and focused in the face of adversity, and many report turning to mindfulness practices—instead of potentially harmful habits, like reaching for a beer—to discharge emotional energy. As a result, BHS’s RISE participants report sleeping better, experiencing less conflict in their personal relationships, and feeling like they can better ride the waves of their careers and lives. “We’re transforming Berkshire Health Systems quietly from the inside using yoga and mindfulness,” Sabo says.
The demand for stress reduction isn’t limited to health-care workers. The Pittsfield Public Schools, for example, just signed a four-year continuation of its RISE agreement. Financial giant UBS in New York City also participated in RISE this year. Initially, Kripalu facilitators cast a company-wide net for participants, but within 30 minutes of sending an email invitation, they were many times over capacity.
“I would have imagined that it would have taken a lot longer to convince people of the efficacy of these practices, or even to get people to be open to trying them,” Vacarr says. “People are hungry for an antidote to the stress they’re living under. We provide that.”