Our wellbeing is tied to that of our patients

I don’t have time for this, I thought as I attempted to walk the twenty minutes from home to my Mind-Body Medicine class at a ten minute pace. I felt a sharp cramp in my abdomen, reminding me that I had just wolfed down dinner without taking a break for enjoyment or digestion. By the time I reached the medical school building the sky was dark, my face glistened with sweat, and I felt exhausted and ill.

I don’t have time for this. I should be studying.

I took at seat amongst eight of my peers and two members of the faculty.

“Let’s get started,” Mary Ann, one of faculty preceptors said, smiling to acknowledge my presence. She chimed the bell once. I straightened my back and allowed my eyelids to flutter shut.

“Acknowledge your breathing.”

I focused my attention on the rise and fall of my chest. A few moments passed as I concentrated on the rhythm of in and out. I began to consider how this life sustaining action is anything but simple. It requires many muscles working in harmony, constantly adjusted by neurological signals that bypass our awareness.

“Thoughts may enter your mind, but that is okay,” Mary Ann continued, “acknowledge them, and let them go.”

In and out, my breathing continued.

“Now feel yourself breathing in peace, calmness, and tranquility. Breathe out any tension, anxiety, or stress you may be feeling.”

When the next bell chimed I opened my eyes slowly. My stomach was beginning to settle, and I felt more at ease than when I entered the room.

After a few minutes of meditation the floor opened for sharing. When my turn came, I welcomed the opportunity to describe how I felt stress manifesting in my body: the slump of my shoulders, the pains in my stomach, the feelings of always being late or behind. Simply acknowledging this made me feel a little better, and my classmates’ nods of understanding reassured me that I was not alone. The others’ stories also helped to contextualize my pains. On my walk over I had been the center of my universe. Yet as I heard others describe illnesses in their family or fights with loved ones I was reminded that my issues are transitory and surmountable. The perspective lifted some weight.

This hour of meditation and conversation begins every Mind-Body Medicine class. It is an opportunity to refocus attention and step outside our personal dramas. In the second hour, our group practices a new Mind-Body skill. It may involve guided mediation, movement, drawing, writing, or further sharing. We get out of it what we give: full participation, willingness to open up, and acceptance of the task at hand yield gratifying results. I often walk away from the class feeling as though a burden has been lifted.

There are countless reasons to engage in activities such as mediation, journaling, exercise, and mindfulness, but for those in the medical profession, a break from work to focus on these skills can be especially significant for both ourselves and for those we treat.

Often, patients enter the clinic with issues secondary to stress. Trauma, emotional difficulties, and anxiety can manifest as insults to the cardiovascular, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems. Similarly, stress exacerbates preexisting conditions to increase healing time and morbidity. When we treat our patients, we also need to address the underlying anxiety or tension. By suggesting practices such as art, meditation, movement, or therapy, we can heal patients in ways that pharmacology alone may not be able too. Patients benefit directly from these activities, but also feel empowered by taking positive actions toward improving the outcome of their illness. When used as a supplement to traditional medicine, mindfulness practices can act as adjuvants to achieving wellness.

Yet those working in healthcare are often among of the most stressed out professionals. Between the long hours, physical demands, and emotionally draining cases, practicing medicine takes significant toll. Without an outlet, this stress builds until it is not only harmful to the doctor, but also injurious to patients. Caregivers can become distracted, forgetful, exhausted, or even take out emotions on those they are treating. It becomes clear that many of the qualities we associate with a good doctor — attentiveness, empathy, and dedication — require adequate self-care on the part of the physician.

Although I often question whether I truly have the time to devote an evening a week to my personal health, for me it has never failed to be worth it. I feel more focused and appreciative of my medical training every time I step out of a Mind-Body Medicine session. Yet even for those unable to dedicate two full hours, there are other abbreviated methods. You can inhale and exhale deeply a before beginning a new task, focus attention and breathing on a troublesome body part, or take a moment to remember what it feels like to have the sun on your face while sitting by the water. These are simple activities that allow us to step out of our everyday stresses and into a tranquil mindset. Finding an individualized method to revive and refocus energy can make a significant difference in overcoming daily struggles.

My experience with these practices remind me to care for the whole person rather than focusing solely on the pathology. By implementing these techniques during medical school or at an early stage in my career, I hope to reinforce their importance and make them more likely to enter into my regular routine. Our wellbeing is tied to that of our patients; we owe it to both ourselves and to those we treat to be present, patient, and composed. A simple dose of meditation, taken as needed, might be just the trick to reaching this mindset.

Natalie Wilcox is a medical student who blogs at The Doctor Blog.

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