Here is the full transcript of neurologist Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq’s TEDx Talk Presentation on The Powerful Secret of Your Breath at TEDxFargo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The powerful secret of your breath by Romila Mushtaq at TEDxFargo conference
Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq – Neurologist
Doctor, lawyer, Jaguar, whoo girl, are those Manolos? President of the PTA. We often walk through life mindlessly, defining ourselves by the careers we choose, the things we buy, degrees — or in my case, designer high-heeled shoes. I click clack these Jimmy Choos right into the hospital room and announce myself: “Hi, I’m Dr. Mushtaq, your neurologist. I was consulted today, because I understand you’re having some physical symptoms that may be related to your brain function.”
Oh us doctors, I know! You know, well that was the conversation I was projecting to the external world, internally my own mind was processing a little bit of a different story: “Oh oh oh, get me out of here! It’s 6:49 PM, and I had 22 more in-patient consults to see after a full day of clinic. Focus Romie! Oh gosh, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! Huh, clearly, I wasn’t happy.
So I would go home, stuff my face full of dark chocolate, buy another pair of high-heeled shoes online, and get up and do the exact same thing the next day. Honey, let me tell you it is not easy running on that hamster wheel and stilettos. You know, I didn’t know that these feelings and physical symptoms that I was experiencing actually had an official diagnosis: physician burnout.
You see, only us physicians are neurotic enough to make up an entirely new diagnosis for something that exists in the entire world: career burnout. I thought my problem was that I was a complete and total failure.
According to a 2012 Medscape study, almost 50% of physicians in the United States are feeling burnt out. But seriously, do we need another study to tell all of us how burned out we’re feeling from our jobs? Yeah, I know that this audience is full of teachers, accountants, and small business owners and all other professionals who have felt the exact same way. How did this happen?
You know, as a society we have upgraded from golden handcuffs to platinum shackles. How? We’ve chained ourselves to soul-sucking jobs for the sake of a paycheck, prestige, or pride. How and why? Career burnout occurs when our external world is not in alignment with our internal soul compass. Our life purpose is tied to this internal soul compass. What is it? It’s that place deep with inside of you where all the answers reside. You know, some call it your gut instinct, your mother’s intuition, your inner soul wisdom.
You know, when our life is not in congruence with this internal soul compass, it leads to stress in our minds and our bodies. According to the Center for Disease Control, 80% of doctors’ office visits are due to stress-related illnesses. And I know firsthand that the stress can kill. None of us are immune to the negative effects of stress from our careers. These common symptoms that occur are anxiety, depression, ulcers, difficulty sleeping, right?
While I was working 80 to 90 hours a week helping others in a hospital, I started to develop this disabling chest pain and this inability to swallow. You know, with my stressful lifestyle it was no surprise that the symptoms slowly got worse. It had to progress to the point that I was waking up in the middle of the night choking on my own saliva and vomit and getting frequent pneumonia. I really couldn’t breathe anymore.
It took almost seven years for a diagnosis of a rare medical disorder to be made called achalasia. By this time, the prognosis was grim. I was going to either end up disabled with an inability to swallow or even possibly had esophageal cancer. And while I was laying on the gurney at the University of Washington in Seattle in pre-op holding, waiting to undergo surgery, I can honestly tell you I wasn’t focused on the possibility that I could have cancer or become disabled. Instead I was in this deep pain and sorrow wondering who am I and how did I get here? And then from the pain and the sorrow, I blacked out.
You see, when our lives are consumed with mindless distractions, we sometimes have to lose consciousness to see the light. You know, I woke up after successful surgery and thank God there was no cancer. It turns out that my internal soul compass was so far off course that the stress was eating away at my mental and my physical health. You know, all I could do in that moment was muster up the courage to ask: “Oh my gosh! You mean I’m alive!”
And my surgeon Dr. Carlos Pellegrini just peered down at me and said, “Of course, you are. So what are you going to do about it?”
You know, unfortunately it takes a life crisis like a hell-scare, a divorce, or a loss of a job to realize that we are not on the right path. This is the first fork in the road. Do we go back to that same life hoping for a change or do we decide to take the other path and create change?
And even if we want to create that change, how do we overcome that fear? You know, I first started to connect the clues while I was doing yoga and sitting in meditation. All of a sudden, that physical and emotional pain that I was suffering from would go away. And I would feel calm and focused and happy. As a neurologist, I wanted to know oh my gosh: is there something really happening here, or is this all just in my head?
I started to do the research and to my surprise there is decade’s worth of scientifical — scientific and medical evidence showing us the health and the psychological benefits of yoga and meditation. I know some of you must be wondering oh my gosh is this doctor seriously going to tell me to sit down and meditate? My parents were thinking the same thing. My mother — “Oh Romila, you are leaving to go to yoga teacher today? You’re a doctor1” Oh my god please don’t tell my mom I did this on stage. I know and so of course my response was, “Mom, we’re of Asian descent; didn’t anybody see this coming?”
So I started to travel around the world and study various forms of yoga and meditation with this one question in my mind: how can we shut off that fear that occurs from one of stress and career burnout and connect to our internal soul compass? To connect to our internal soul compass, we must do just one thing: breathe.
How many of you are aware of your own breath in this moment? Yeah, I wasn’t aware of my own breath until I couldn’t breathe anymore. This is why I wanted to take mindfulness from the meditation mat into a mindful way of living. You know, what is mindfulness? It’s a term we hear so often thrown out in the media these days, right?
Mindfulness is one simple action: breathe. So you see when we breathe, we bring ourselves to the present moment. And in this present moment is where all of your dreams and desires reside. To connect to your purpose, you just have to breathe.
The answers we seek, like deep with inside of us not in this external world and these things that we buy. And what do I mean when I say inside of us? This is that powerful place again where all the answers reside: your intuition, that mother’s instinct, your gut instinct and wisdom. This is your internal soul compass.
And so again how do we connect to this place? Breathe! Yeah, as a neurologist that’s now specializing in mind body medicine, I help clients and corporation heal from the ongoing effects of stress and career burnout through mindful living. Mindful living will help you connect to your internal soul compass and I’m going to give you three of those steps right now.
Step one: is self-compassion through self-care. Self-care is not selfish; it’s just 20 minutes a day to honor your mind, your body and your spirit. Take this time to do an activity that makes you feel relaxed, like listening to uplifting music, taking a walk outside in nature even on a rainy day, yeah, or taking a long hot bath. It is that simple to start calming down the stress hormones in our minds and our bodies that get elevated when we’re stressed out from our jobs.
You know, it’s these stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that get elevated and just fuel the insomnia, anxiety and that difficulty performing at our jobs that slows us down. You know, many of us have been programmed to think that self-care is not allowed. But I ask you honestly: how can you give of yourself authentically when your own gas tank is on empty? Our soul is a vessel and if we give from a place of empty, we’re just passing on this fear and stress and people around us can sense that.
But when we fill our own lives with love and a sense of compassion, we not only feel peace but we share that with everyone around us. So now that we have calmed down our minds and our bodies from the stress response, we’re going to feel a little less angry and try to find happiness in our lives.
So how can we be happy? This is the next step of mindful living: Adopt an attitude of gratitude. You know, clinical research shows that no matter how much material wealth or even high-heeled shoes we accumulate, this does not lead to happiness. Happiness in people is sustained by one thing universally and that’s having an attitude of gratitude. So think in giving thanks my own blessings will multiply.
It is amazing how the brain works. When we focus on what we’re grateful for, we’re actually training our brains to focus on what’s positive in the world.
So how can we start? Tonight, when you’re going to bed, take a moment and think of the three or five things that happened today that you’re truly grateful for. This is how we start to dim the negativity.
So now we have calmed down the stress response in our minds and our bodies and adopted an attitude of gratitude, it’s going to feel a lot more peaceful to sit and be still in meditation.
This leads to the next step of mindful living: Be Still. How many of you have a moment in your day to be still? If you don’t think, so I’m going to show you how. Breathe. And if you need a reminder to disconnect from social media, hashtag breathe.
You know, with the advances in neuroscience and neural imaging, we can see in real life the improvement of the structure and the function of the brain when we sit down to meditate. Meditation is as simple as consciously connecting to your inhalations and your exhalations. This is how we modulate the autonomic nervous system turning off the stress response and promoting relaxation.
And when we’re sitting in relaxation we can connect to inspiration, and that inspiration may come in the form of maybe a childhood dream or even the next step to take in your own career or personal life.
You know, I remember when I was sitting in meditation, I connected to this joyful feeling that I once experienced sitting in Mrs. Reed’s seventh grade English class. Mrs. Reed was that teacher who fostered my love for communication. You know, I knew as a little girl I want to write and speak for a living. So breathe, and ask yourself: when you were a child, what did you want to do when you grow up? Yeah, we’re each here to live a purpose in this world and our dreams and our desires will guide us on this path to live this purpose.
You don’t have to see top of the mountain of your dreams to start on this path. Breathe! And ask yourself what is the first step: follow your intuition and please don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. You have to believe that you are on the right path even if you don’t know where the path is going.
You know, my initial steps did not make rational sense at all for someone that’s a physician: Yoga teacher training, traveling the world, learning meditation, writing a blog — and yet today I stand here literally almost four years to the date of waking up from life-saving surgery finally connected to the purpose that little Romie had in her heart over 25 years ago.
You will, in your life, reach a fork in the world. When you do, don’t panic. Stop and breathe! When you reach that path of your purpose, you will look back and realize that everything good and bad and even devastating that’s happened happened for a reason. Everything in your life connects and you — only you had the answers in your heart all along.
So breathe! You’re alive. What are you going to do about it?