Why this burned out physician turned to meditation


There are aspects of practicing medicine that will always be challenging and stressful, even in a perfect system. Avoiding dangerous drug-drug interactions. Keeping up with the overwhelming amount of new data on diagnostic and treatment modalities. Telling a patient that they are dying. The uncertainties of call night.

In addition, medicine tends to attract some pretty type-A, intense, perfectionist people that are all-too-willing to sacrifice their personal needs for the needs of their patients.

Then we bring “the system” into the mix. Those people “out there” are doing harm to “us’” We say the system is putting all the onus on the docs to be more resilient and to fix their own burnout. But in doing so, we are then putting all the onus on the system to ‘get fixed’ so that doctors and other health care professionals will no longer be unhappy.

What’s missing here is accountability. On both sides.

Let’s look at it this way: Let’s say you have a morbidly obese patient who suffers from diabetes, sleep apnea and hypertension. You advise them to get better control of their health. And they tell you, “Sorry, doc, it’s not my fault, I was raised by an abusive parent, so I stress-eat. And I have no access to healthy food because there isn’t a grocery store in my neighborhood. And advertising on TV makes me want unhealthy stuff. And I don’t exercise because my knees hurt.”

What would you tell them? Yes, all of their reasons are so tragic, legitimate and pervasive in our society. But it doesn’t change the fact that they need to do something about their weight and their health. You can help them, but you can’t do it for them. If they wait for the systemic issues to be fixed, they are going to die in the meantime.

The system is broken. For sure. For all sorts of reasons. But “who” is behind the brokenness, and how can we identify them? Who or what defines what a perfect system looks like, and how will we know when the system is fixed?

I practiced academic hospital medicine for ten years. I learned to meditate when I was so burned out that I was crying every day. I stopped crying, my interpersonal relationships improved, I had more compassion and empathy for my patients, and I had several years of professional growth and creativity in a faculty development leadership position. I decided to teach meditation full-time — not because my burnout made me leave medicine, but because I wanted to share this incredible tool with other health care professionals so that they could avoid hitting rock-bottom as I had.

Let me be clear: The type of meditation I teach is not what you will find at a required one-hour physician wellness mindfulness program at the hospital. You know, the one you would rather do anything than attend because you have 20 patients waiting for you (and then family at home waiting for you after that). It’s easy, you get to sit comfortably, you don’t try to control your mind or thoughts, and after just four sessions, you are completely self-sufficient and do not rely on apps or guided visualizations to meditate.

This type of meditation isn’t woo-woo or for “other types of people.” It’s for everyone. It’s a high-performance tool. It is two to five times more restful than sleep, so it helps with insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation. It increases creativity and efficiency, improves anxiety and depression, reverses stress damage that accumulates over a lifetime, and re-wires the way your brain processes stress and pain.

If your life feels impossible right now, you have three choices:

1. Keep blaming the (ridiculously broken with no end in sight) system for your unhappiness

2. Actually change the (ridiculously broken with no end in sight) system. If you can do that, you are my hero.

3. Recognize that, although the system is broken, taking action to make yourself function better within it is not the same as giving up on trying to fix it, accepting blame, or victim shaming. Use tools like conscious health meditation so we have the best people possible working to fix our health care system.

How do you want to show up for your patients? How do you want to show up for yourself? As Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” It’s your life! Let’s get out of blame mode and into accountability mode.

Jill Wener is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jill Wener, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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