For many of my readers, the concept of mindfulness seems out of reach. The term evokes imagery of tranquil monks and bucolic hillsides, existing miles away, both literally and metaphorically. I created this series to shorten these distances, and to introduce mindfulness to practicing physicians as an easily accessible tool to combat physician burnout.
With the goal of demystifying mindfulness, I decided to create this 12 part series. Each post examines the relationship between mindfulness and a specific area of the practicing physician’s day-to-day life. They each include a physician’s story, and how the rigors of their practice currently hamper their ability to fully live that part of their life. After detailing their situation, I provide guidance for how that physician can utilize mindfulness to gain fulfillment in that area.
With each post, I give you an actionable step that will help you integrate that post’s topic into your daily life. I’m also going to give you an exercise that you can practice in your free time that will help strengthen your resilience, calm, and fulfillment. My goal is to transform mindfulness from a daunting, unapproachable ideal into a broad toolkit that you have easy access to. Simply put, I want to help you be a happier, more productive version of yourself, in the workplace and at home.
Without further ado, here is the second installment of Demystifying Mindfulness.
Today’s Topic: Mindfulness and Being Present with Patients
Our Physician: Dr. J, an internist in outpatient practice in the northeast. Dr. J writes:
“I’m finding it almost impossible to be fully present with patients. I want to be 100% focused on every patient, but my mind seems to be everywhere else. I feel like such a crappy physician…on top of being overwhelmed with the workload I can’t even empathize with the people I’m treating. What can I do to be more present and caring with each of my patients?”
Dear Dr. J,
I want to emphasize two things: 1. This is something that almost every practicing physician experiences. And 2. As we continue our careers, it takes mindful effort to humanize our patients and maintain presence. We are overworked, are pulled in countless directions, and often have other things on our minds, like responsibilities outside of work. It’s not easy to give 100% of yourself to the patient in front of you when all you can think about is the charts you need to finish. Not only that, but we weren’t trained to empathize with patients! We were taught to be diagnostic scientists, not present, caring doctors. Compassionately dealing with each patient you see requires intention and cultivation. Here’s what I recommend:
Set an intention. You deciding that you want to be more present with your patients is powerful. Before each day of work, decide this again! Setting an intention for your day helps you chart your course, so you avoid finding yourself at the end of the day not having acted the way you would have liked. The goal is not to be perfect here, but to begin to shift toward your goal. Intentionality is the root of mindfulness, and this is a concept that I’ll expand upon in future installments.
Commit to cultivating empathy toward your patients, and toward yourself. When you’re with patients, and you notice your mind wandering, remind yourself that you want to be more present, and return to the human being in front of you. The more times you remind yourself to feel this way, the more empathy you’ll develop for your patients and for yourself.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Forgive yourself if you aren’t as present as you’d like to be. Self-compassion is a crucial component of living mindfulness. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the kinder you are to yourself, the more likely you are to enact the changes you want to make.
Deciding that you want to be more present and caring with patients is an important first step. Implementing these mindful strategies will take you the rest of the way.
Modern conversation is dominated by discussion of the benefits of mindfulness. The implication is that “being in the present moment” will magically help us but, unfortunately, we are constantly distracted by email, Facebook, and the most recent text message, or, just as easily, by our own thoughts. Let’s look at 5 benefits of being in the now:
Benefits of Mindfulness # 1: Mindfulness brings Calm
Often our minds spin wildly, jumping from thought to thought. The swirl of thoughts can be like the torrent of a waterfall. We try to focus on a task and our mind goes to an argument we had that morning, a recent text, or how guilty we feel for eating those 3 scoops of ice cream last night. When we aren’t ruminating about the past, we fixate on a concern about the future, and anxieties and worries take hold. Even if there are no current stressors, our thoughts can take us into a downward spiral driving fear, rumination, and distress.
Mindfulness helps us realize that thoughts are simply thoughts, not reality.
Instead of being swept away by the waterfall, we learn to watch it from the comfort of the water bank. Creating some distance from our thoughts frees us from being trapped by them and allows us to access a natural calm and ease.
Benefits of Mindfulness # 2: Improved Relationships
Despite being physically present with loved ones, it’s easy for our minds to be elsewhere. Often we stew about a meeting we have to plan for or replay a tense conversation with our boss, missing what’s in front of us. Mentally living in another moment, we can see our partner or children as the annoying distraction. We find ourselves impatient and short-tempered.
When we’re in the present moment, we detach from past experiences and future worries and give our full attention to those we’re interacting with. Drifting from the now is inevitable, but we can note this and gently return to the present. We all know how good it feels to interact with someone fully invested in us at that moment, and others immediately sense when we’re fully there with them. Staying in the present, we often find that it’s easier for others to join us there.
Benefits of Mindfulness # 3: The Present Allows Broader Perspective
When we’re in the mindless mode, we develop tunnel vision. We become stuck in a fixed reality that we have assumed to be true. Watching the world through this clouded lens, we have difficulty simply seeing and appreciating what is. Often times the way we see a problem can, in fact, be our problem, and part of being mindful is being open to challenging our own assumptions. One of the cornerstones of mindfulness is a quality of open awareness and curiosity. When we become inquisitive about a problem and question our assumptions, we see options that were previously outside of our field of view.
In addition, by shifting our focus to the present moment the magnitude of our problems begin to shrink. Right here, right now, it’s likely that our needs are being met, our health is manageable, and we can meet the challenges we face.
Benefits of Mindfulness # 4: Be More Resourceful
What if you could focus on what is rather than how you think things should be? Releasing expectations about your situation allows you to take action from where you actually stand. If you know what you’re facing, as opposed to an altered version of it, it’s likely that you’ll have more clarity. You’ll be able to see what the real constraints are and where there are openings for change. And all that energy that you’re putting into wishing things were different can be harnessed to take action with what actually is.
When you stay in the present moment, there is more available to you to come to a solution. You can then respond wisely and in a fully informed manner, rather than reacting blindly. You develop the superpower of conscious clarity. Watch this light animation of Dan Harris explaining how practicing mindfulness can be a superpower.
Benefits of Mindfulness # 5: A Mind in the Now Fosters Confidence and Creativity
When we focus on what’s actually going on right now, we shed comparisons with others, harsh judgments about ourselves, and our analysis of our circumstances. All of these thoughts sap our natural creativity, and besides being overly-critical, they are rarely accurate.
When we live in the present moment, our attention is focused on what we’re experiencing and instead of getting caught up in negative self-talk; we can simply note it and move on. We leave rigid ways of understanding our experience behind. This flexibility clears room for new thoughts and ideas, and the results are often a rush of creativity.
Integrating mindfulness practices into our lives provides a multitude of benefits: we spend more time in the here and now, we experience less anxiety and more calm, and we enjoy deeper and more meaningful relationships. We reduce the tendency toward tunnel vision and see more options and choices, and this helps us feel less trapped by our circumstances. And we remove barriers that stifle our creativity and confidence.
It’s easy to get absorbed in our email, phones, and the most recent text message. Just as easily we get lost in our own internal thoughts. When you find yourself distracted, worried, or anxious, take a few minutes to bring your attention to your breath. It’s a sure-fire way to access the present moment.
Learn How to Be Mindful Within the Present
Through her experience as a physician coach, Dr. Gail Gazelle improves the lives of doctors throughout the United States. If you would like to learn how to become more aware and mindful, reduce stress, and decrease burnout, contact Dr. Gazelle today.