As a physician, you know firsthand how busy and hectic healthcare is. There is abundant evidence that the modern healthcare system is more than broken, and this results in difficult working conditions, long hours, and underappreciation of front-line workers. This setup, combined with the human brain’s natural propensity towards fear and negativity, and the harsh self-criticism we learn in training, results in what we see today: 50% of physicians are burned out.
The truth is that you may have limited control over the environment you work in: whether or not your practice gets acquired by the behemoth next-door, the number of patients you’re expected to see, who your administrators are.
What you do have control over, however, is your own mind. That’s where mindfulness comes in.
The formal definition of mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment without judgment. What I like to call it is “developing mastery over your most important instrument” and “everything they should have taught you during medical school.” It’s going to be your toolkit for what you can control with regards to burnout. And for the 500+ physicians that I’ve coached, there have been massive benefits.
Let’s dive into ways mindfulness helps you regain autonomy and happiness as a physician, and then how you can implement it into your life.
Benefits of mindfulness for physicians
There are numerous benefits to incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine as a physician. Here are a few:
1. Reduces stress:
One of the most well-known benefits of mindfulness is its ability to reduce stress. For physicians, this is especially important. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, mindfulness can help you gain perspective and focus on the present moment, rather than getting caught up in negative thoughts about the past or worries about the future. As stress is a leading contributor to burnout, it is crucial that physicians develop an effective way to manage their stress, and mindfulness is potent here.
2. Improves communication with patients:
Have you noticed that it is hard to have good communication with others when you aren’t fully present? By noticing thoughts and returning to the present moment, mindfulness can also help improve your communication with patients. By bringing your full attention to the present moment and actively listening to your patients, you can build trust and provide more compassionate care.
3. Enhances decision-making skills:
Studies have shown that mindfulness can improve decision-making skills, as it allows you to approach challenges with a clearer and more focused mind. When your mind is running 1000 miles a minute as you attend to your 20th patient of the day and 70th of the week (and it’s only Thursday morning), it can be hard to decide which scan to order or whether a complicated procedure is necessary or not. But when we learn to calm our minds despite the demands of the system and dysfunction around us, we can make these decisions from a rational, calm place.
4. Increases well-being:
In addition to these specific benefits, mindfulness has been shown to improve overall well-being and quality of life. By taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breath and the present moment, you can cultivate a greater sense of balance, clarity, and compassion. The human brain is not designed for our well-being – it is designed for our survival. This means that threat identification and self-criticism often run on overdrive – the modern-day implications of an amygdala designed to hyper-focus on what is going wrong. By mindfully shifting our perspective, we can orient more around what is going right, which sustains us and supports our happiness and well-being.
5. Regain autonomy:
Dr. Maslach’s pioneering research on burnout found that reduced autonomy was a key contributing factor to burnout. And indeed, when we feel powerless and unable to enact change in our lives or work, we are more susceptible to being burned out. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of what we can control and what we cannot. No amount of breathwork or meditation is going to wrestle control back from the broken healthcare system.
But mindfulness will help you get in touch with your inner power. Your ability to choose how you respond to this broken system and how you show up with your patients every day. Your own compassion and presence. And this newfound power will completely revamp the way you feel at work and your sense of control and autonomy.
6. Helps support your most important patient:
All too many doctors are pouring from empty cups. For physicians who spend their days taking care of their patients, spouse, children, and even aging parents, little time is spent attending to your most important patient: you. Fortunately, mindfulness offers us a space where we can achieve true rest and restore our own minds, giving us more energy to then support others. We can also recognize mental patterns that have been sapping our energy and step away from them, further nourishing ourselves.
How to incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine
So, how do you get started with mindfulness? Here are a few simple tips for incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine as a physician:
1. Start small:
You don’t need to set aside hours each day to practice mindfulness. In fact, even just a few minutes of mindfulness each day can have a significant impact on your well-being. Start with a few minutes each day and build up from there. Think about a laptop that’s been running for the last decade. Shutting it down for 2 minutes will have a massive impact on how quickly you can load up your favorite news source or Youtube video.
With mindfulness, tapping into real presence and detaching from thought for even a couple minutes has a palpable impact on our energy and presence. I’ll give you an exercise at the end to try this.
2. Find a practice that works for you:
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, so it’s important to find a practice that works for you. You could sit down and quietly listen to your thoughts, focus on your breath, pay attention to sounds or the images in front of you, or simply apply extra presence to an activity you already do.
3. Make it a habit:
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will become. Try to make mindfulness a regular part of your daily routine, whether it’s setting aside a specific time each day for mindfulness practice or finding ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily activities. Even taking purposeful pauses after seeing each patient, breathing, and reorienting to the present moment can have a massive impact on your well-being.
A Mindfulness Exercise for You to Try:
An incredibly basic meditation you can try today, that will help you become more aware of the patterns of your mind.
Meditation is a word with a lot of connotation. It can evoke images of monks sitting on idyllic hillsides, peacefully breathing into a perfectly stable, silent mind. It can seem “woo-woo,” and its Eastern roots are a far cry from the hard science background that most of us have.
In simplest terms, meditation is just practice managing your mind. It’s your most important instrument and one that you probably haven’t been trained in. And unlike a stethoscope or endoscope, it’s a device that you can’t put down at the end of the day.
Without learning to tame this beast, we run the risk of being controlled by our thoughts and emotions, and miss out on being present for our lives.
So here is an incredibly basic meditation that you can try today – to begin to gain mastery over your mind.
Sit somewhere quiet, and comfortable. Set a timer for 5 minutes. For 5 minutes, all you’re going to do is focus on the area right below your nostrils. Notice any sensations related to your breath.
The mind is a wild animal – it will wander away. When you notice that it has, all you need to do is add a mental tally mark (“1”) and return to the breath. See how many times you can notice that the mind has run away.
By incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine, you can reduce stress, improve your communication with patients, enhance your decision-making skills, and increase your overall well-being. With a little practice and patience, mindfulness can become an essential part of your daily routine as a physician.