Dr. Romie Mushtaq speaking at the ACA 2023 Conference & Expo
Dr. Romie Mushtaq delivers the keynote address at ACA’s 2023 Conference & Expo on Friday, March 31. Photo courtesy of Alex Webster/Pinpoint National Photography.

Dr. Romie Mushtaq, a board-certified physician and the founder of brainSHIFT at Work, opened the second keynote at the ACA 2023 Conference & Expo by reminding the audience that although healers are in the business of healing others, they often do not have the time to pause and heal themselves — a reality she admitted that she knew all too well. Dr. Mushtaq joked that it looked like she had achieved everything her immigrant parents wanted by becoming a doctor, researcher and professor. But on her way to work, she often found herself sobbing and her heart was racing.

After noticing this change, she decided to start therapy, but she said she was apprehensive about it at first because therapy can often be a red flag in the medical community, and she also admitted she held her own personal shame about it. To help her overcome this hesitancy, the therapist told her to come up with a therapy name, so Dr. Mushtaq chose the name “Diva Diamond” because she said it was the farthest thing from how she was feeling at the time.

But the chest pain continued to get worse, so she went to doctors who prescribed medications to help with inflammation and acid reflux and told her to cut back on wine and chocolate, but she said none of it helped.

Her condition continued to progress until she began experiencing chest pain so severe that she would wake up at night choking on her saliva and vomit. Eventually, she learned that she had severe achalasia, and her stress had exacerbated it to the point that she had developed precancerous lesions by the time she was properly diagnosed.

Dr. Mushtaq, an expert in neurology, integrative medicine and mindfulness, told the audience that when found this out, she thought, “Nothing I learned in medical school is going to help me get through this, and I can’t go back to this job, that you and I love, healing others without figuring it out.”

So she started exploring how healers all over the world were using mindfulness and meditation to treat the body and mind. This journey led her to create the brain shift protocol, which helps people restore their sleep, sanity and connection by focusing on the root causes of a busy brain: inadequate sleep, hormonal changes, inflammation, food and fuel, and technology.

She then asked the audience of counselors — who she acknowledged might be thinking how this protocol would be useful for clients — to shift their focus and think about how they can use it to heal themselves.

“If we don’t take care of our stress and that constant churn and burn of success at all costs, we can’t start to heal others in the system,” she emphasized.

She pointed out that people in the West often engage in a vicious cycle where they caffeinate themselves all day to keep going, and this only heightens their anxiety and inability to focus. Then, at night, they need to take a sedative to take the edge off, which then fuels this anxiety and difficulty focusing the next day.

“When we are living in a state of a busy brain or burnout, … we are in a chronic stress mode. And any little thing that comes to tip it up over the edge will now send us into a person we don’t recognize — that Diva Dimond self in the dark hole,” she said.

She then asked the audience to take the “busy brain test” on her website and assess their current stress levels. She said that out of the 17,000 adults she tested in her research, the majority had a score indicating some level of chronic stress, with 72% having stress levels that are affecting another key organ system (e.g., digestion, respiration, hormones).

“Your brain is not broken. Your mind is not a mess, and your spirit did not depart your soul. There is a way out of this to brain shift and to find that diamond self,” she reassured the attendees.

She then shared four steps in the protocol for cultivating this brain shift:

  • Set a regular time to sleep.
  • Engage in a brain dump before bed. This includes establishing transition time after work or before bed and journaling, writing down or “dumping” what is in your brain (e.g., business lists) or heart (e.g., what you are grateful for that day, worries from that day), and picking one focus item for the next day.
  • Perform a 21-day digital detox and shut down digital devices about 30-60 minutes before bed because these devices emit blue light that can disrupt brain function, increase cortisol levels, and decrease melatonin and serotonin levels.
  • Take a brain pause.

She also advised the attendees to visit their doctor to check their Vitamin D3 and thyroid levels, which are often underlying causes related to stress and sleep issues.

She concluded by thanking mental health professionals for being her hope holders when she was at her lowest point and didn’t have hope for herself. Then she asked the attendees, “What’s the hope you have for your life?”

With Rihanna’s record-breaking song “Diamonds” playing as Dr. Mushtaq exited the stage, she left the audience with the hope that they would “come out of that place of a busy brain and shine like [their] diamond selves.”


Lindsey Phillips is the editor-in-chief for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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