Episode 428: From Burnout to Brilliance: Unveiling the Busy Brain Cure

Episode Summary

In this episode, you’ll hear about Dr. Romie Mushtaq’s transformational journey from a burned-out neurologist to a leading advocate for wellness in the workplace. Throughout this episode, Dr. Romie Mushtaq talks about the detrimental effects of chronic stress on physical and mental health and shares practical solutions to heal the busy brain. She explains the root causes of chronic stress, how data-driven programs can help you restore your brain, how leaders can implement a culture of well-being in their organizations, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our “Becoming Your Best” podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, and we have an extraordinary guest with us today. You are going to love what we talk about. She is a board-certified physician, award-winning wellness speaker, and the founder of Brain Shift at Work. She brings together over 20 years of authority in neurology, integrative medicine, and mindfulness to not just deliver programs but to create cultural change. Welcome, Dr. Romie Mushtaq. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Thank you. Perfect. Nailed it! Your homie, Romie, is here on the podcast, and I honor all your listeners. Thank you. Time is one of our most important assets, and thank you for giving Steve and me your time today. 

Steve Shallenberger: Amen. Before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Dr. Romie. She’s on a mission to transform mental health and wellness in the workplace and personal lives all over the place and currently works with Fortune 500 companies, professional athletes, and global associations. Dr. Romie is also the Chief Wellness Officer for Evolution Hospitality. She’s going to tell us a little bit about that. It’s so interesting; as we talked before, she scaled a mindfulness and wellness program for thousands of employees. Her expertise is featured in the national media, such as NPR, NBC, TED Talks, Forbes, etc. So, let’s get right into it. She is the brain doctor; let’s jump right into this. Dr. Romie, tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I think we all pause to think of the unplanned turns in our lives and how they shape us, or how we choose to let them shape us. If you’re in your mess right now, listening to this podcast, it’s okay that you may not know where the next step in your professional or personal journey is. I’ve been there. Maybe that’s why we’re here listening today. I will tell you, I am the proud daughter of immigrant parents here in the United States. I grew up at a time in the public school system in a small town in Illinois that I’m so proud of, where girls were just typically tracked into home economics and typing classes. I had parents who had one mission: “We have one daughter, and you will become a doctor.” I did that; I got into medical school and entered neurology at a time when less than 5% of the brain doctors in the United States were women. I love brain science and was great at my job. But Steve, I didn’t practice the leadership principles you teach today. Here I am, curing other people’s health and not taking care of my own. If people have seen my TED Talk from 10 years ago, that’s now gone viral, they’ll know the chronic stress and burnout nearly killed me, and I should have known better. I’m a doctor. After undergoing life-saving surgery and finding a path to mindfulness, I realized, “Wait, I’m not the only person going through this.” As I started to get invited into more corporate events and dealing with global organizations, I started to research what I’m here for now. And in the process of healing myself, developed the protocol, and I’m here today discussing all of that and my new, now USA Today best-selling book, “The Busy Brain Cure: The 8-Week Plan to Find Focus, Tame Anxiety, and Sleep Again.” I think just summarizing that for you sounds like such a clean media talking point, isn’t it? But this was a 15-year journey that brought me to your podcast today, and I can say I’m truly here, being of service. 

Steve Shallenberger: There’s so much to talk about. Tell us about your new responsibilities. As soon as you do that, our listeners are going to understand that you relate; you’ve seen this from all sides. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I do. Not only do I see things as an individual doctor, sitting with patients one-on-one in both neurology and integrative medicine, but really look at population health and workplace wellness specifically. As you mentioned in my bio, for the last six years, I was serving as Chief Wellness Officer of Evolution Hospitality, where I’ve successfully scaled a program to 7,000 employees. Today, I’ve just joined Great Wolf Resorts, and my role is to use data-driven solutions to create a customized wellness program for our now over 11,000 employees all over the United States, and growing and scaling all aspects of health—mental health, mental wellbeing, physical health, occupational health, etc. It’s a role that may sound unique or different to most of your listeners, but Steve, you and I are here to make the case that this is the one role missing out of most C-suites today in the United States, and business and leadership cannot move forward without having people advocating for wellness. 

Steve Shallenberger: Sounds like there’s no stress in this job, Dr. Romie. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Gosh, could we have a human moment, Steve? I mean, you’re interviewing me 90 days into a global book launch. You yourself know what it’s like to work with a traditional publisher and have a full speaking calendar, and then stepping into a new C-suite role. If I didn’t practice what I preach here in this book, I don’t know that I’d be smiling on this podcast with you today. I’ll also have a human moment because every leader listening to this has these moments. We knew the last six months, I was in a sprint for my professional career, launching a global book and stepping into a new C-suite role, and between that being a caregiver for elderly parents, I really haven’t had many days off. I’m looking forward to a vacation that’s scheduled at the end of this month from the time we’re recording. So, we all have those periods, but you can’t sustain it. 

Steve Shallenberger: One of the things that we talked about—and Dr. Romie and I had the opportunity to visit a bit before our podcast show started formally—was talking about becoming your best. One of our favorite quotes is, “You either lead a life by design or live a life by default.” It’s very powerful. You have to be deliberate at being at peace and calming yourself when there are big challenges and big responsibilities. So, we’ll have the chance to talk about that because it may be a parent, a coach, a teacher, a C-suite leader, a division manager, or a warehouse manager. We all feel it at different levels. Sometimes, it’s felt in relationships. So, how in the world are you going to set up a program that helps a whole company? How do you do that?

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: First, you look at the data. I think the number one mistake companies and leaders make is, “Oh, Steve, yes, you’re right. Our company has a health and wellness issue. Mental health, everybody’s talking about it. Well, that doesn’t belong in the workplace; let them figure it out on their own.” No. And then other leaders will say, “Hey, Steve, I like yoga, so we’re going to make everybody in the company do yoga.” That’s known as activity-based plans, which never works because now you’re actually excluding people. What’s your favorite kind of exercise, Steve? 

Steve Shallenberger: I play pickleball, and I love to walk. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Very cool. I love walking too. I haven’t gotten into pickleball. So, can you imagine if the two of us were on a planning committee, and we said, “We’re going to roll out pickleball, walking, and yoga to the entire company?” We’re not actually excluding people and not listening to their needs. The way I’ve done it with data and discovery is you’re literally looking at both long-term data that we capture every six to 12 months, like engagement data, health insurance data, but also being on the ground with our people and round table data, and collecting all of this to say, “What are the unique needs of our organization?” So, at Great Wolf Resorts, I’ll give you an example: most of our employees, known as Pact Members, are on the younger side. I feel like an aunty Dr. Romie saying this now, but Gen Z, millennial—we may not be talking about a cardiac health protocol, but we’re certainly looking at innovative solutions for mental well-being and mental health right now, which is what’s really popping up. So, you get the data, and then you make a strategic plan that is simple and scalable. That’s exactly what I’m working on right now in a framework that has served me with other clients in the past, and doing the same now. So, have me back on your podcast nine months from now, and I’ll actually have data-driven results for you on what we did. I can’t give you the secret recipe just yet because it’s still getting approved through our executive leadership team as we’re recording this podcast, but stay tuned. 

Steve Shallenberger: Wonderful. Thank you for responding and giving that answer. What inspired your transition from traditional medicine to stress management? 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I thought, Steve, at that time, I was in academic medicine—not only was I seeing patients, I was doing cutting-edge research and mentoring medical students and residents. If I was struggling, maybe I’m not the only one. When I got out of that guilt and shame cycle of somehow having failed and I was lying in the hospital after having cardiothoracic surgery, realizing, “Good God, nothing I learned in medical school is going to help me now.” This was back in 2010; there weren’t apps on our phones to tell us how to manage stress and meditate. I ended up traveling the world and working with global healers. I wondered why people are happy and healthy in other countries, and they have less than we do materially or opportunities here in the United States, and found the path to integrative medicine and mindfulness. So, that was the healing that had to happen. When you’re truly living a purpose-driven life, one of mindful or servant leadership, and you’re saying, “Universe, show me how to help people. If I’m meant to go back and see patients one-to-one, I’ll do it.” But I realized, “Aha, our healthcare system is overcrowded, and we’re not doing justice to the chronic stress, heart attacks, mental health crisis.” Where’s the crux of the problem in adults? It’s in our workplaces. Being an entrepreneur and always having been an innovator, I had this bold and crazy idea at that time: I’m gonna go into corporate America, and I’m going to directly point to the C-suite and be like, “What we’re doing in the workplace is killing your employees and you. We need to change things up.” It took.  Like I said, the universe came, I ended up delivering a TED talk, and companies started to call me. This was back in 2014-2015. All of those companies are still with me today on this journey, as I’ve been researching, to say, “What are the solutions for you as an individual listening and for your team and companies?” It’s been on-the-ground research since 2018. In my initial role as Chief Wellness Officer at Evolution Hospitality, we put all the research in the book. Now, it was like, “Here’s the protocol that you could do individually, and take a lab slip to your doctor or do it as a team. Let’s heal the burnout and chronic stress crisis in corporate America.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Good for you. I think it’s only got worse. I reflect upon my career and think back to when I first started. I’ve had the blessing of buying, selling, and running quite a few companies over the years; I think I’ve never seen it as intense as it is today. I don’t know what your perspective is. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Steve, your intuition and gut instinct correlate with the data. There are a few things happening that are fueling the mental health crisis. Mental well-being; let’s just define that: that’s our ability to process emotions and have gratitude. I’m talking about a mental health crisis. This isn’t just our kids, though Gen Z is really affected differently than your and my generation. But it is worse for three or four reasons. I bet you and I were raised where, when we came home from school or even college, we went outside—that isn’t it. We’re hardwired to devices 24 hours a day, whether it’s work, our personal lives, or both. Second, there’s no more quittin’ time. When you and I were growing up, people worked on shifts, and you didn’t think about work when you went home. That’s not the case today in a global workforce, and the pressures at work and balancing family. Those are two really important reasons—the lack of disconnection from digital devices and the lack of boundaries between personal and professional life that are contributing, as well as chronic stress, to this crisis that I cover in “The Busy Brain Cure.” 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you for outlining that. I don’t think many of us are spared from challenges in life. This thing of emotional health is vital for every one of our success and longevity. To feel happy and peaceful, what a blessing that is. So, two questions. The first one is, can you share some quick tips for immediate relief from a busy brain? How do we get through all of this? Especially, well, it’s not just during the day, but how do you turn it off at night? We were just talking about it.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: We were. Steve, I’m going to say, because every podcast host asks me this: I’m going to rephrase that question. That’s the crux of the problem. We want instant relief, instant gratification, and instant relief. Everyone has tuned in, leaning forward to your podcast right now as they’re listening to their drive or on their walk, going, “Yes, what supplement is she going to tell me to order? What tip is she going to give that I haven’t heard of on TikTok yet?” That’s not the answer. When we’re living a life of chronic stress that has formed over weeks, months, or years, there isn’t an instant solution. That’s why the old stress techniques aren’t working. I’m a practical brain doctor; I’m not here to talk fluff with you. You’re not a person who talks fluff either. We actually have a free test—and we’ll give you the link to put in your show notes—known as the Busy Brain Test. Over 17,000 people took this test in our research period, adult professionals like you and I, and I ask you to go get your brain score. I want to know, on the Busy Brain Test scale, do you have a score over 30? If that’s the case, then we have an eight-week protocol for you. So, number one is to know your score. Don’t walk around saying, “Okay, Dr. Romie, who isn’t stressed these days. I’m just going to turn this podcast off.” I want to: one, quantify it; two, say, if you go through this eight-week protocol, not only will your score improve drastically, but so will your ability to focus during the day, combat adult-onset ADHD, sleep well, and turn off that anxious brain. So, I think step one is, let’s get your brain score. And then step two, because you’re like, “What can we do right now to turn it off at night?” Well, in our corporate keynote lectures, we actually challenge not only you as an individual listening but your entire team to practice digital detox, to have a turn-it-off time at home, that I’m going to turn off work, and that should be earlier in the evening. And then the second thing is to turn off all digital devices.  

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: If you’re streaming a great series and binge-watching on your laptop, turn that off, turn off the Smart TV, and turn off your e-reader. That needs to happen. You’ll see in chapter nine of the book that we did a research study in my previous role of almost 500 leaders and said, “Turn off all digital devices 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.” The results were astonishing. Literally, they were sleeping better and had less anxiety than if I had given them addictive sleeping pills. That’s a quick tip for you right there, one of eight that we go through in our protocol. 

Steve Shallenberger: How does stress affect physical health? You’re an MD; you spent your career really thinking about this. What’s the scoop? 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Can I geek out and talk about brain science for a minute here? Because nothing excites me more.  

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, I’d like to hear it. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: Yes, thank you. I’m so glad we get to do that. It’s all outlined in chapters one through five of my book with story laced in between. But the bottom line is where we’ve gone wrong in managing stress is that people look at the acute stress model—something that’s stressing us out, like having a report to do at work tomorrow. That’s a short-term deadline, something that’s happening within minutes or hours. Chronic stress is that it’s been going on for weeks to months; that’s most of our lives right now, you and I included, number one. Number two, there is a place in the brain that I call your “airport traffic control tower,” and that’s your hypothalamus, specifically your SCN nucleus, that controls our circadian rhythm. We now know in brain science research that chronic stress of months to years will cause neuroinflammation in the brain and actually rewire the brain and the airport traffic control tower. This is really alarming. Think of an airport traffic control tower. Steve, name an airport that you last flew through for me. 

Steve Shallenberger: Salt Lake City, for sure. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I’m in Orlando. I travel through there often, connecting on Delta. Salt Lake City is connected to most of the major cities in the United States and also global destinations. If a snowstorm comes through Salt Lake City, operations have to shut down the airport traffic control tower. Not only are the flights delayed or canceled in Salt Lake City, but now, within minutes, they start getting canceled in LAX, New York, Hong Kong, and all the connecting regions. That’s exactly how the hypothalamus in our brain works. It’s connected not only to the rest of our brain—our memory, our mood, our sleep cycle—but also to every organ system in the body: hormones, digestion. So when you’re under chronic stress, this inflammation is like an airport traffic control tower in your body, and it’s going to signal to a certain part of your body, “Hey, there’s inflammation. Shut down.” It’s why some people when they have chronic stress, get joint pain. For me, you hear from my TED talk and the story in the book, it affects my digestion really badly. For other people, it will raise their blood pressure and cause diabetes out of nowhere. It’s all related and intertwined. That’s the crux of what we want to heal. So, once I understood the pattern of what chronic stress could do to your airport traffic control tower in your brain and the rest of your body, we came up with five key areas that we target in this protocol that you and I will unpack in a second here that affect the body. But that’s why, when you’re under chronic stress, you start developing symptoms, and you’re sitting in the doctor’s office going, “Is stress related to this problem?” The answer is yeah. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, totally. Busy brain and stress—are they the same things? 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: No, they are not. That is such a great question. Chronic stress in people can lead to a busy brain. A busy brain is this neuroinflammation pattern in the hypothalamus, and three key symptoms show up, especially in high-achieving professionals like you and I serve. One, adult-onset ADHD—you can’t focus during the day. Now, you need excessive amounts of caffeine or a stimulant to get through your day. Two, ruminating anxiety—you should be able to send an email in three minutes. Now, all of a sudden, it’s taking 37 minutes, and you’re distracted by your email inbox, messenger channel, and cell phone texting. So, that inability to focus and anxiety. Then, when you go home, you’re dependent on a sedative, like alcohol or a sleeping pill, to calm you down at night, and now you have insomnia — difficulty falling and staying asleep. That’s a busy brain: adult-onset ADHD, difficulty focusing, anxiety, and insomnia. 

Steve Shallenberger: How do you break this cycle? Let’s say it’s 2 am, and all of a sudden, you wake up, and you can feel it—your brain is just ruminating. Is there some way to calm that down? I can’t wait to hear your protocol. I’m excited to read your book.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: The way to calm it down is not to pick up your phone and say, “Let me knock out a few work emails or see what’s on my calendar tomorrow.” The minute you see the digital light, even if you say, “I’m going to get on TikTok or Instagram,” you’re sending the blue light signal to your eyes, into your hypothalamus, to wake up and start stressing and obsessing again. So, avoid digital things. Number two, in the protocol, in week one and week two, we actually start people on key deficient minerals that they need—magnesium glycinate, which has a calming effect and can help restore the circadian rhythm, and number two, 5-HTP (five-hydroxytryptophan) which boosts your serotonin—feel-good—levels and helps you rest, and then, in turn, helps with melatonin. So, we actually give you those two to reset their circadian rhythm when you wake up in the middle of the night. Most people feel better within 10 days; that’s why this protocol works. If it continues, Steve, we actually have a lab slip that we send people to their primary care doctor in chapter 16 of the book or on the website that correlates with the book. I want to look at a few labs in adults. I want to see if your thyroid hormone is okay. In men and women, that could be causing you to wake up—chronic stress. Airport traffic control towers are now affecting your thyroid. Your blood sugar levels could be plummeting in the middle of the night—pre-diabetes, diabetes, that could be another cause. Here’s the third cause, and we’re going to lose a few friends here, Steve, if I admit this. Do you know what else is waking people up in the middle of the night? Alcohol. In our protocol, we actually ask people to cut their alcohol in half if they’re having two or more drinks a night or cut it out completely for the time being because it suppresses your REM sleep and raises your core body temperature, like your hypothalamus, and in the middle of the night, it’s going to signal you to be wide awake. Now, the alcohol calming effect is leaving, metabolizing out of your brain, and you’re going to be even more anxious. So, we also ask people to avoid alcohol. Helping it with magnesium glycinate, 5-HTP. If that, after 10 to 14 days, doesn’t work, we check labs, looking at pre-diabetes, diabetes, and thyroid. But overall, we’ve got to get off the alcohol temporarily until we heal the busy brain. 

Steve Shallenberger: This next question is probably something you’ve been thinking about, as you described your new responsibilities built upon your previous ones. I’m sure it’ll be an interesting question and response for all of us across the spectrum. How can wellness be integrated into leadership?  

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I feel so strongly about this, Steve. This isn’t an option. It is the model of leadership today. There is data that shows companies in the Fortune 500 that are performing their KPIs have wellness as a core principle in leadership and in the rest of the organization. There are no mincing words about it. So, I say it starts from the top. It starts from not only the CEO but your entire C-suite. My saying is this: you can’t have leadership without wellness, and you can’t have wellness without leadership. So, that’s number one. Two, we’ve got to define what’s my personal wellness vision; for me, Dr. Romie. It could be different for you, Steve. We may be in different phases of our lives and have different responsibilities. Then, you’ve got to define wellness as a mission for your organization. For most companies and leaders that are struggling, I actually introduce them to the concept of whole-person wellness. We look at wellness as a whole person—their mind, body, and spirit. We’re not going back to that activity-based wellness that you and I were discussing at the beginning: Steve likes pickleball and walking, and I like yoga, and we’re like, “Okay, we gave a few classes, we gave people a perk to get a pickleball equipment discount. We did wellness in our company.” That’s not how it works. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, it’s the whole enchilada. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: It’s an investment, and it is scaling, and it is a mission, and you put leadership behind it. It’s not something on the side; that’s a checkbox to say, “Okay, we introduced a wellness program. But really, the important thing in our business this year is to drive sales and reach $1 billion in sales.” You’re not going to hit any sales goal if your people aren’t well. You introduce wellness in order to improve engagement, improve sales, and improve your KPIs. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’ll tell you, as a leader, you’re not going to reach your goals if you’re not doing well. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: No, I watched my entire life crumble. Like I said, I was a leading doctor doing women’s brain health research. It can all come tumbling down in a moment. How many leaders are listening to this, and they can relate to that? We keep pushing ourselves to the edge of burnout, saying, “I’ll rest when…” Guess what? That To-Do List never goes away.  

Steve Shallenberger: Well, life is wonderful. Look at myself; I’m 73 and still cranking a full schedule. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: You’re my hero of the week. You want me to talk about brain health. I feel like we should have turned this interview around. I’m going on 50 this year, Steve, following my protocol. I tell people I’m cognitively sharper today and have more energy than at 25 when I graduated from medical school. 

Steve Shallenberger: Isn’t that wonderful? That is wonderful. That’s a good reward for this. One of my dear friends, early in my career, offered this suggestion. I’m getting a pencil out, ready to write all this down, and he said, “Don’t run faster than you can run.” As a young 35-year-old at that point, I thought to myself, “I can run pretty fast.” What a baby! What a child! It’s learned that that is a really great bit of advice and wisdom, and trying to still apply it today. Well, we’ve had a great visit today. Would you please share any final tips that you think would really be helpful for our listeners? 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: I do. I think step one is to get a brain score for yourself and have an authentic leadership moment to know what is my brain score, and what am I going to do for myself. When you do that busy brain test, you get a seven-day sleep challenge as our gift to you. Do it with your team. I think from a brain shift team perspective, when I’m giving keynote lectures, I actually ask people to do an audit of how they’re handling working outside of their regular business hours. Be mindful of your leaders and come up with a protocol together. The last thing I’ll say is if you’re listening today, and you made it to the end of this podcast, and you’re like, “Wow, Steve, I ran faster than I knew how to,” or “Romie, I hit that wall, and my brain and body have fallen apart and I’m at burnout,” I just want to say to you what I wish someone had said to me when they were rolling me into surgery: your brain has not broken, your mind is not a mess, and hope did not depart your soul. Just start by healing your busy brain.  

Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about what you’re doing? 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: My name is Dr. Romie. You can go to to take the busy brain test for free. My USA Today national best-selling book “The Busy Brain Cure” is offered globally everywhere books are sold, especially Amazon.  

Steve Shallenberger: Is it in Audible?  

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: It is also in Audible, it is in Barnes and Noble; it is at Target; it is where you buy books globally. 

Steve Shallenberger: The Busy Brain Cure. There you have it, my friends. It’s been a delight visiting with you. Thank you so much for bringing your experience and expertise to our show today. 

Dr. Romie Mushtaq: It’s been an honor, Steve, and thank you for everything you’re doing and modeling what longevity and taking care of yourself as a leader should look like. I’m inspired talking to you today. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you. The same way with me. To all of our listeners, wherever you may be, thank you for joining us. This has been a treat. We wish you the best as you’re working on becoming your best and just reaping the fruits from that of greater peace, focus, joy, satisfaction, and perhaps a little less stress. So, thank you, Dr. Romi. It’s been great. Adios to everybody. Signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Dr. Romie Mushtaq

Chief Wellness Officer

Brain Doctor, Keynote Speaker, Mindful Leadership Expert, Author

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