How breath and meditation can help prevent burnout among nurses

As a nurse, nursing leader, doctor, or any other healthcare professional, there is a high chance that you or your peers have experienced symptoms of burnout due to your workload and environment. Anxiety, a lack of self-care, emotional fatigue, and an inability to rest well are symptoms of stress and burnout in nursing, affecting your mental health over time.

Although burnout has been a common problem in nursing and other healthcare professions for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend, highlighting the need for everyone in the industry to focus on self-care. That is where the Healing Breaths’ SKY (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga and accompanying breathing techniques) program is a practical step for building a culture of wellness that supports both you and your colleagues through stress and burnout. To learn more, click here to schedule a time with an expert.

A Brief Overview of Nurse Burnout Statistics

According to a 2022 report by the International Council of Nurses, the global nursing workforce was approximately 27.9 million. However, there is a worldwide shortage of 5.9 million nurses, a shortfall of around 21% that could grow in the coming years.

By the end of 2020 in the USA, nurse burnout statistics showed that 63% of surveyed nurses reported burnout symptoms. 15% of nurses left their jobs during this time, a 5% increase from the previous year, indicating the toll of burnout in nurses and the strain that burnout was placing on the entire industry.

What Are the Symptoms of Nurse Burnout?

The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has added burnout as an occupational phenomenon. According to the WHO, the ICD-11 classifies burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Some of the most common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feelings of exhaustion and constantly low levels of energy
  • Feeling distant from your job and unable to be emotionally invested, or feeling pessimistic or cynical about your job
  • Reduced performance and job efficacy, and an inability to meet your work requirements effectively

As well as reduced performance, stress, and burnout in nursing can push people out of the profession as they can no longer engage emotionally with their work or healthily sustain their workload. If effective self-care practices are not implemented, it can also affect your mental and physical well-being, leading to higher levels of anxiety, depression, mental health struggles, and health issues.

The Science Behind Breath and Meditation

Breathing techniques and meditation have been the subject of study for many decades now, with applications in the military, healthcare industry, addiction treatments, and more.

Many of these studies have shown that breathing exercises, such as SKY Breath Meditation, and meditation techniques like mindfulness-based stress reduction, can bring about immediate and long-term stress reduction.

Studies published by Harvard Business Review theorize that rationally thinking your way out of stress, anxiety, and burnout is ineffective because these intense emotions can impair your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking). Therefore, breathing techniques and meditation are more effective, as they can trigger the body’s natural physiological responses to relax and relieve stress.

According to NPR, breathing exercises and meditation effectively train the body’s reaction to stressful situations, therefore dampening the production of stress hormones released by the body’s sympathetic nervous system as a fight-or-flight response. Lengthy exposure to elevated levels of stress hormones can lead to poor quality of sleep, poor mental health, reduced life satisfaction, and physical symptoms such as hypertension, a weakened immune system, and more relating to burnout in nurses.

Our own research and reviews of independent studies at Healing Breaths have shown that on average, practitioners of the self-care SKY program experienced a 56.6% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after two weeks, a 33% increase in the count of lymphocyte immune cells after six weeks, and a 21% increase in life satisfaction after just one week.

How Breathing Exercises and Meditation Can Help with Burnout

One of the main biological theories behind the effectiveness of SKY breathing and meditation for nurse mental health relates to vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) which can exert many different autonomic effects. These include:

  • Changes in heart rate
  • Improved cognition and vigilance
  • Improved appetite, digestion, and bowel function
  • Improved calmness, relaxation, and quality of sleep
  • Improved blood pressure
  • Reductions in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic disorders
  • Improved resiliency to stress

SKY breathing and meditation may also function as a form of mechanical hyperventilation for the VNS, causing stimulation of the thalamic nuclei and reducing frontal cerebral cortex overactivity, a reaction to the body’s fight-or-flight that leads to a physiological state of stress.

SKY breathing and meditation can also affect your endocrine system by modulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These effects are likely the result of the release of prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin to the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary, enhancing feelings of bonding, affection, and well-being.

Complementary mindfulness meditations and practices also help to ground you in the present moment, where you can remain focused on your current tasks without distractions from previous or future experiences. This has practical applications in and outside the workplace when you need to disconnect from work to rest, relax, and enjoy your personal time.

Mindfulness and meditation can, in time, help to restructure the brain and regulate neural activity relating to attention and emotional regulation for lasting therapeutic effects. And by implementing these practices in group settings, nurses, physicians, and other professionals within an institution can create a culture of wellness together for mutual support.


While nurse burnout statistics in the USA and around the world indicate significant shortages that affect the industry and patient care, many nurses face increasing levels of burnout and exhaustion. In turn, stress and burnout in nursing lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety, tiredness, and physiological problems like hypertension. These issues may force many healthcare professionals out of the industry when individuals and organizations do not implement self-care practices.

One of the most valuable and cost-effective remedies to burnout in nurses is meditation and breathing exercises like those covered by our SKY program here at Healing Breaths. The Sky program improves well-being, reduces stress, and provides nurses and other healthcare professionals with the means to become more resilient to the everyday stressors they face.

To learn more about how Healing Breaths is helping hospitals to address burnout and create a culture of wellness and connection with a data-driven, pre-post intervention that monitors efficacy, contact us on 628.280.6527, or email our team at