/ Podcast / Quieting Your Busy Brain, With Dr. Romie Mushtaq

Quieting Your Busy Brain, With Dr. Romie Mushtaq

This week Dr. Sandi welcomes Chief Wellness officer at Evolution Hospitality, keynote speaker, author, and physician, Dr. Romie Mushtaq to talk about brain health, burnout, and health coaching in corporate wellness. As a physician, Dr. Mushtaq suffered from severe burnout. She shares her experience with discovering mindfulness, meditation, and other ways to quiet her busy mind. Dr. Mushtaq and Dr. Sandi discuss recent studies on the impact of health coaches in cognitive health, as well as how coaches can reduce burnout in the corporate world. What’s more, Dr. Mushtaq shares insight into her eight-week program to help reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and increase focus found in her book The Busy Brain Cure. Learn how you can help your clients quiet their busy brains and improve their wellness.

Episode Highlights

  • How can coaches and clients recognize burnout?
  • Learn about the Busy Brain Test.
  • See how health coaches can help clients avoid burnout in a corporate setting.
  • Read about Dr. Mushtaq’s eight week program to quiet a busy brain.
Dr. Romie Mushtaq

Meet the Guest

Dr. Romie Mushtaq

Founder of “brainSHIFT at Work.”


Dr. Romie is a board-certified physician, award-winning wellness speaker, and the founder of “brainSHIFT at Work.” She brings together over 20 years of authority in neurology, integrative medicine, and mindfulness to not just deliver programs, but create cultural change.

She is on a mission to transform mental health and wellness in the workplace and currently works with Fortune 500 companies, professional athletes, & global associations. Dr. Romie is also the Chief Wellness Officer for Evolution Hospitality, where she scaled a mindfulness & wellness program to over 7000 employees. Her expertise is featured in the national media such as NPR, NBC, TED talks, and Forbes.

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Episode Transcript

Dr. Sandi: Hello, everybody, and welcome back to “Health Coach Talk.” Today, I am so excited to present to you Dr. Romie. But before I introduce her, I want to tell you how we connected. It was through a social media app that was called Clubhouse. It is still in existence but during the pandemic, we had wonderful discussions on this platform. And so I really got to know here and respected her so much.

Let me just tell you a little bit about her. She is so accomplished. She is a board-certified physician, and she has brought together more than two decades of leadership in neurology integrative medicine and mindfulness. She’s an award-winning speaker. She’s worked with Fortune 500 companies. She has a brainSHIFT program, and she’s the chief wellness officer for Evolution Hospitality. We will share more in the show notes about Dr. Romie. And she is here to talk about stress management. We’re going to dig into how health coaches can be involved in this area and particularly about her book, which is “The Busy Brain Cure.” So, let’s dive in. Welcome, Dr. Romie.

Dr. Romie: Dr. Sandra, it is so great to be here with you and our Clubhouse days feels like a lifetime ago.

Dr. Sandi: Doesn’t it?

Dr. Romie: And I’m so thankful that we’re meeting back in person. You and I were at a health conference just a few months ago together. And to be able to be in your presence and hug you, I feel that way just looking at you recording this podcast. And I thank all your incredible health coaches and listeners. I don’t take anybody’s time for granted, but I think the next 20, 25 minutes will help them truly shift their relationships I hope with their brains and the brains of their clients.

Dr. Sandi: So, speaking of shifting, you underwent a shift. How did you transform? What inspired you to go from traditional physician into now your field, stress management?

Dr. Romie: Yeah, I think like so many healthcare professionals that are in traditional medicine, we all have our stories of burnout. Mine was one of the first to come out publicly in a TED Talk and how mindfulness and meditation help burnout. And anyone can be prone to burnout. And I was still seeing integrative medicine patients here in Orlando, and I learned quickly that going viral had nothing to do with the immune system. And companies started to call, forward-thinking companies like, “Hey, can we teach our companies to meditate and be mindful?” And this aha moment came to me that I had to journey through my mess in order to help you with yours. And as someone that’s always been an intrapreneur and an entrepreneur, my brain is wired to think impact and strategy. And I remember sitting in my integrative medicine clinic going, “I can’t be sitting here 60 to 90 minutes at a time, meeting people when they’re at their wits’ end.” How can I get to the root cause of the problem, which is 72% of Americans work in a corporate setting or are employed. How do I get to the employers to say, “Hey, wakeup call. I almost died from chronic stress. Stress can kill you. I should have known better. I’m a brain doctor. I’m here with you and for you with a wakeup call and a solution.” And that’s a short answer to how I got here, but could I tell you the real honest to God truth, Sandra, beyond the business talking points?

Dr. Sandi: Love to hear it.

Dr. Romie: I think today it still haunts me how lonely I felt as a neurologist, one of the only females in the division at the time. I entered neurology at a time where less than 5% of brain doctors were women. And I didn’t know I was in a mental health crisis. Burnout wasn’t a term in our vernacular way back then in the two thousands. I felt so alone. I was in a really dark place. Not a single colleague asked me if I was okay. They knew something was wrong. They were gossiping. My patients, my patient’s parents were asking me if I was okay, but no colleague did. And it further fueled the loneliness, and the isolation, and the shame. Maybe any health coach that’s listening to this now or our global community, which will get your amazing podcast, will know that they’re not alone or that, as a health coach, you may be sitting with someone trying your best to lead them and do something. And the most powerful thing you can do for someone is say, “I am here and I care because I remembered what it was like not to have that.”

Dr. Sandi: Wow. That is so powerful. And I know that so many listeners, that will resonate with very deeply and often is experiencing burnout. You don’t know. You don’t know when you think you’re all alone.

Dr. Romie: Yeah. And shame, right? I was raised by immigrant parents with really a standard of academic and personal and professional excellence. And most of your listeners are too. And even today where now the pendulum has swung and people are like, “Who isn’t chronically stressed out? Who isn’t burnout? Give me the biohacks to keep moving and churning through the burnout.” And don’t underestimate the loneliness crisis or what burnout and mental health issues can do to someone.

Dr. Sandi: What are the signs? How can we recognize burnout?

Dr. Romie: The World Health Organization finally in 2019 made it an ICD diagnosis as an occupational hazard. And I think I just want to give it to your listeners in Romie Real Talk if that’s okay. Burnout is you’re questioning, “I thought I love this job, but I’m not sure I love it anymore.” And winds are coming along, and you’re not finding the joy or the celebration. And in fact, you’re getting cynical, and you don’t recognize yourself.

But my aunties… And you’ll hear the voice of the aunties in my book, “The Busy Brain Cure.” When we have a busy brain and we’re burned out, my negative voices are the judgmental aunties, and they said something to me when I arrived home after surgery, “Yep, it’s as if the lights are on and nobody is home. What happened to that Little Romie we knew who always used to be happy reading the encyclopedia and eating a piece of chocolate?” So, I ask you, “Do you look into the mirror in the morning when you’re brushing your teeth and avoid your gaze or is someone in your life avoiding a gaze? Are the lights on and nobody’s home?” That is the sign for burnout.

And for your clients that want actual score, we have a free Busy Brain Test that you can use as an assessment. That was a part of our research for the book, 17,000 people took it. It’s a neuropsychology battery measuring stress to chronic stress to burnout. We call it the Busy Brain Test because it’s easy for the corporate consumer world. And you can get a number. You can get a brain score and know where you stand.

Dr. Sandi: Wow. So, that is something that I think our audience would be interested. And this is in the book. Can you say more about the development of the book?

Dr. Romie: Yeah. What happened was I told you my journey is between maybe 2014 and 2018. I’m getting called to corporations and global associations all over the world to talk about meditation, mindfulness, mindful leadership. In 2018, I have the honor to be named by one of my longstanding consulting clients, Evolution Hospitality as their chief wellness officer. I was the first medical doctor in this kind of a role in corporate America. And really I think The CEO and founder John Murphy and the entire leadership team, it was a visionary position.

I had already been doing research on The Busy Brain and the company, and we put together a program known as the Power of Pause that brought in together neuropsychology, mindfulness for wellness, and scaled it successfully to over 7,000 employees. Then the pandemic hit and companies were like, “Wait, she’s not an out of the box speaker, or that’s not a weird position. This is something our companies need.”

And I was out talking to companies virtually and quickly, Sandra, I realized everything we’re taught in functional, integrative medicine, nobody wanted to hear it in the middle of the pandemic and nobody want to hear, “Hey, girl, just do some berries and breathe, and everything’s going to be okay. And here’s a TikTok of puppies hugging babies to make you feel better.” Like, we needed something deeper. People were coming and saying, “I’m trying meditation. It’s not failing.” I did that cleanse to a T and I feel worse, and that made me go back and do the research.

And so we looked at 17,000 people and what their brains, mental health, physical health and spirituality, that’s what the Busy Brain Test, does during chronic stress. And then we developed the protocol. And then we realized this can’t be a secret inside corporate America for people that can afford to pay my keynote fees or hire me to run this eight-week program with their clients. We need to take it out to the public, and that’s how the book was born.

But more importantly, and I love my developmental editor for this, Sandra. It’s filled with stories, my story and journey of burnout, the story of my male allies in the middle of the book where all the science is, Chapters 5 through 9. For all the doctors that are naysayers, give them that. It’s all science in the middle. And then Chapters 10 through 17 are the eight-week protocol with stories of transformation.

So, most people who score above a 30 on the Busy Brain Test, they’re like, “Romie , get to the point. Tell me what to do.” Just turn to chapter 10, we got you, and start the eight-week protocol.

Dr. Sandi: Well, that sounds like you have covered all bases, and it’s science-backed, which I love. And I think that this can be a great resource for our health coaches. One of the things that we see so frequently is giving information, advice that’s not personalized. So, I was involved in mind-body medicine and stress management since the ’70s. And it is encouraging [crosstalk 00:10:53].

Dr. Romie: You’re a visionary, Sandra, by the way. Thank you, thank you. You opened the door for all of us. Thank you.

Dr. Sandi: I used to give workshops, “Stress Management for Teachers,” “Stress Management for Parents of Kids with Special…” All these breathing techniques. But what I see is that there are certain buzzwords now like, “Oh, just do breath work or just meditate.” When someone has a busy brain, they need…

Dr. Romie: They need more. We need to get to the root cause. You’ll read in Chapter 1 and 2, the busy brain is like an airport traffic control tower. And one of my corporate clients, Delta Air Lines, gave me a tour of operations at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. So, you get to read how that unpacks, and I say that because you can explain it to your clients that way.

What’s happening is, with chronic stress, there’s a specific pattern of neuroinflammation that happens in the limbic system and hypothalamus that disturbs your circadian rhythm and can offset five key areas in the brain and in the body. And that’s what the SHIFT in brainSHIFT acronym stands for. S is sleep or circadian rhythm. H is hormones, particularly thyroid. I, markers of inflammation,, looking at methylation disorders and vitamin D3. F is how we use food to fuel ourselves. And T is technology.

And these things can all be different in everyone, but I go into the science at the root cause of what gets disturbed of when somebody tells you, “Hey, Sandra, I’m eating the berries. I’m breathing. There’s something deeper that’s wrong.” That’s the research I did. What’s wrong? How do we help people fix it? Backed by science so they can take this book to a traditional primary care doctor and get the labs covered by insurance.

Dr. Sandi: Wow, that is really compelling, but especially because it is research-backed. So, I really love that. So, do you find that busy brain is often being able to turn off thoughts like ruminating being bombarded, as you said, that busy airport, and they just don’t know how to do that. And so going from there to stillness is not going to work. But, for example, like for me, I take a ballet class. And I love that because I can… And so I have to focus on the choreography. It’s mentally challenging as well as… It’s movement, but it’s also just distraction. And so some people find that those types of techniques…

Dr. Romie: Embodiment techniques. Yeah.

Dr. Sandi: Totally, like [crosstalk 00:13:22].

Dr. Romie: That’s Step 4 in the brainSHIFT protocol. So, that’s Week 4 is embodiment techniques. We talk about the shake it off therapy or sound healing and the science behind that. By the way, did you do ballet since you were a child or did you pick it up as an adult?

Dr. Sandi: I did a little bit when I was a child. Never very good but…

Dr. Romie: Amazing. You see, every time I talk to you, I learn something magnificent about you. Y’all, can you just hear it in my voice on the podcast if you’re not looking at video? I am fangirling over Dr. Sandra over here. That’s so cool. But what I really want to get to is you have to reset the circadian rhythm first. So, you asked me for the symptoms of a busy brain is saying traditional neurology, psychiatry, psychology, got it wrong, that adult-onset attention deficit disorder, anxiety, specifically ruminating anxiety and insomnia, are not three separate diseases.

Look, there’s balloons going off in my Zoom, and I don’t know why. They must be happy in case you’re watching a video, but there’s one spectrum of disease of chronic stress and burnout that happened with this particular pattern of neuroinflammation. So, people wake up and can’t get going without a stimulant, whether it’s excessive amounts of caffeine or a prescribed stimulant. They’re anxious all day long. They caffeinate more, difficulty focusing, lack of productivity. A time management tool or productivity technique is not needed here. They’re really suffering. And then you go home, you try the embodiment technique like a ballet class, or I just power walk with my dog in a stroller around the lake and do deep breaths. It’s not working, and you can’t shut down your brain before bedtime because of [inaudible 00:15:04] conversations, or you wake up in the middle of the night with your thoughts going. And that’s a busy brain, and that’s that particular pattern of neural inflammation that we’re talking about and the symptoms.

So, yes, it’s please know I’ve been trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This comes from boots on the ground, working with thousands of people across every industry saying, “Thank you, but I need something more than the meditation or the mind-body technique. There’s something going on in my brain or body.” And we researched it. And then we tested the protocol in over a thousand executives and fine-tuned it. And, Sandra, early on in the protocol, we had meditation introduced in Week 4 of the protocol, and that’s where we were losing people. And I was like, “We need to fix this.” And that’s when we had that aha moment and introduced the sound healing, the brain pause during the day that included embodiment techniques. But by this time, we’ve already reset the circadian rhythm and have people sleeping. That’s the first step.

Dr. Sandi: Yeah. So, what I’m hearing is that sleep is really crucial, and it can be a vicious cycle because when you have this busy brain, it’s hard to get to sleep, to stay awake and to get back to sleep. And it’s really a true integrative approach. This is not just one thing. It is really looking at putting it all together, all of those lifestyle factors and incorporating all of those strategies, personalizing it.

Dr. Romie: Yes, and making it easy. And making it easy because, listen, doctors and health coaches can do things at once. We give you a list and we say, “Please do this, and I’m going to be accountable.” And instead it’s really tapping in brainSHIFT, giving people things that are easy to do that doesn’t feel like a disruption of their work or personal life, that they can do at nighttime, or just little micro habits that stack upon each other. And what we find is they start with a Busy Brain Test. They get a number. They set an intention where a health coach is so important at the step is helping people get over their resistance and denial and projection, what I call the three evil cousins in the brain. And then Step 2 is the seven-day sleep challenge. And if people can get through that, it is a easy win. There is this natural euphoria. We’re resetting the serotonin, melatonin, and the circadian rhythm. And then everything becomes easy after that. But, yes, to your point, personalized, letting someone know that you’re there for them and you care, and I’m not just writing a prescription and telling you, “Sandra, you must follow this.”

Dr. Sandi: That is going to be so effective and for coaches or prospective coaches listening. So, we have been talking a lot about being a brain coach because there was a landmark study that was released in JAMA that showed that those who had personalized coaching compared to a control group that just got health coach education, on tests of memory and cognitive skills, they did 74% better than the control group. So, we’re seeing this as you could be a brain coach, as a mind-body coach, but you can be a busy brain coach and you can [crosstalk 00:18:18].

Dr. Romie: I love that idea. I think you just gave me a business idea. Do we need to bring this eight-week [inaudible 00:18:23] to your amazing certification? I would be honored to do that.

Dr. Sandi: We’ll have to find the coaches to…

Dr. Romie: Please. Because here’s the thing I want to take out to the 30,000-foot view, Sandra, you and I have talked offline about this so many times. There is a shortage of well-trained coaches, which is what you do so well. And correct me if I’m wrong, many of your coaches go into doctor’s offices, integrated functional medicine practices. I come from a different lens as a doctor in corporate America. We need well-trained coaches like yours in corporate wellness, because right now what corporate America is really genuinely eager for solutions. Some forward-thinking companies may have someone like me as a chief wellness officer. I’m there for 7,000 employees. One person can’t do that. And by the way, I have a full-time speaking business on top of it, right? And then they get apps, and nobody wants to open up another email or an app.

And this is where health coaches… Like, I make the case as a chief wellness officer, when I give my leadership talk, is you’re better off paying for health coaches in your company than spending seven figures on another app that less employees will open. And some of the major insurance carriers are employing ICF-certified health coaches as a part of benefits, and people find that valuable. And I really do think that is the future of corporate wellness. Two things is having a chief wellness officer that can guide strategy for the entire organization, keeping in mind diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and also oversee health coaches and give those initiatives out to health coaches to take out to the company. I see it as the future. And, yes, a busy brain coach is needed for stress management because, by the time many executives from different companies get to me, they’re like, “Yeah, I got assigned a coach or therapist in my company. And they just kept telling me the same stuff I read everywhere about stress management, breathing, prioritizing a to-do list,” and that didn’t help. Something else is going on. And this is that solution. This is that something else

Dr. Sandi: Yeah, this is where you are listened to, you feel heard, and it’s very different for each person. It’s not a formulaic one-size-fits-all. So, yeah, we have a workforce wellness program and some pilot programs where we have our coaches. [crosstalk 00:20:48] a very short period, five sessions of health coaching. We did a randomized controlled trial looking at that. It builds self-efficacy. That’s one of the keys. So, absolutely. That is the model. That is the future, having a chief wellness officer with a human being because, yeah, we can [crosstalk 00:21:07] the best that we can have, but it cannot replace a coach.

Dr. Romie: Can I tell you a story, Sandra? So, I’m chief wellness officer for Evolution Hospitality, which manages before the pandemic, over 125 hotels in the United States and Canada. Tragically, we have to furlough almost 70% of our employees during the pandemic when hotels closed. They would go to other companies to work, to get jobs, and take our Power of Pause program with them and say, “We had a doctor, a chief wellness officer.” They may not have been with the company, but if they landed in the hospital with COVID or other problems, they knew Dr. Aunty Romie was one Instagram DM or LinkedIn message or text message away, and I was there for them. And they went and started to tell other companies.

And then when Evolution Hospitality opened up the hotels and we had a callback, out of the entire portfolio, we had the highest number of employees coming back. We had the highest associate opinion surveys as well as guest satisfaction scores in the hotels. And the other divisions in the portfolio were like, “What are they doing differently?” And they would come on the ground and I was nowhere to be found. And everyone said this, “I have the power of pause. It gave my team tools so that we could feel like we’re together and we belong. And I have somebody that cares for me. I have a chief wellness officer.”

And throughout the company to your point about human interaction, you will hear stories of, “I called Dr. Romie when I was in the urgent care. I told her my problems about fertility, and she found an integrative holistic doctor for me to go to.” And that human connection is what’s needed at a chief wellness officer level and a health coach level both. And I can’t wait to partner with you. This is where you and I are going next. There was a reason I was meant to be on this podcast beyond “The Busy Brain Cure.” I have a voice inside corporate America, and let’s keep this conversation going about getting your amazing health coaches into workplace wellness.

Dr. Sandi: We want to see a chief wellness officer and an army of health coaches in every company.

Dr. Romie: Every company. Amen.

Dr. Sandi: And we haven’t even started talking about the hospitals, the hospital systems, and their employed physicians who are burned out.

Dr. Romie: I was one of them. That’s the other tackle thing we have to do. It’s a crisis. You probably just saw the latest data that came out from Healthgrades and Medscape that, by 30/30, 1 in 4 physicians will have left the field. We’re going to have a shortage of physicians as the population’s aging. So, you’re right. There needs to be… Here’s my opinion on that really quickly, and this could be in another entire 10 podcast episodes. But as a chief wellness officer, when you’re looking at strategic thinking, three things have to come into place that we say came into place at Evolution Hospitality. You have to have a wellbeing program that’s catered to the needs of your employees, not just a generic one-size-fits-all. You have to create a culture of belonging where everybody feels like they belong. So, you can’t force everyone to do ballet or do yoga like I do, or everyone can’t be vegan or everyone can’t be paleo. Everyone has to feel like they belong.

But the third piece is operational excellence, which is outside the purvey of a chief wellness officer and coach, other than me collecting data in the fields and giving it to the operations people and in other companies that are succeeding, like I see at Evolution Hospitality, at Delta Airlines, at U.S. Steel, they prioritize operational excellence. We’re struggling in healthcare, right? EHR systems, insurance, prescription, crisis. Operational issues are what’s dragging down the other two pieces. So, that’s my short answer of why healthcare as a whole, as a general statement, there are healthcare systems that don’t, this doesn’t apply. They have fixed the operational issues. But why I see healthcare is different than all the other sectors I serve: hospitality, finance, insurance, tech, FinTech, oil and gas, you name it. I’m in those industries. It’s very different than healthcare.

Dr. Sandi: Oh, absolutely. And they both need to be addressed because they are both in crisis together. We have the solutions. So, Dr. Romie, where can people find you? Because I know they will want to find you and find your book.

Dr. Romie: Join the movement please. I beg of your community of health coaches. You have the ears and hearts of people to make sure that you can tell them, “I am here and I care.” You will find the entire protocol in my new book, “The Busy Brain Cure: The Eight-Week Plan to Find Focus, Tame Anxiety, and Sleep Again.” It is available globally where books are sold from Harper Collins. So, we are very excited whether you want the actual hardcover paperback book, Kindle, audio books. I’m Dr. Romie on social media. Listen, as a health coach, if you have a question or feedback on the brainSHIFT protocol, because the eat comfort food will be controversial for some of you, message me. I want to hear from you. You are boots on the ground helping other people with busy brains. So, reach out. And, listen, if I have to close with one thing, I want you to know, as a health coach, if you’re burned out trying to run your business, or you’re working with a burned out executive or someone who loves their job, I’m going to tell you what I wish someone had told me when I was going into surgery, not knowing what was going to happen on the other side. It’s let them know that your brain is not broken. Your mind is not a mess and your spirit did not depart your soul. Take my hand and together let’s brainSHIFT. And we as the health coaches and the chief wellness officers and doctors get to be the hope holders for the people who feel alone.

Dr. Sandi: You’re so beautiful and just endearing. It is really wonderful. I think there is a reason we connected in so many levels, and your message really resonates. You are a beautiful soul. I wish we were in person so that I can hug you. And to be continued.

Dr. Romie: To be continued. This is just the start. Let’s see what we can build together.

Dr. Sandi: Oh, absolutely.