Mindfulness Meditation For Patients And Providers

da474602de887d6e3a7251ba89d443d6-huge-chThis medical student was skeptical -- and a little embarrassed -- about learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (read: meditation), so he was surprised to realize that he had gained a valuable tool that he hopes other primary care providers will embrace. 

By Charles Ebersbacher

During the year that I took off from medical school to complete my MBA, I enrolled in a stress-reduction study. I’d become interested in preventive medicine but found the diet and exercise aspects of it easier to grasp than stress reduction. By participating in a study, I thought I might learn some stress-reducing techniques that could help some of my patients. I only had to commit to six hours of questionnaires and saliva testing to earn $70. And, if randomized to the mindfulness-based stress reduction arm, I might get to spend two hours a week for six weeks learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Fortunately, I did.
 
My first exposure to the concept of mindfulness was during medical school orientation. I’ve practiced sporadically since then – usually by lying on an osteopathic manipulative therapy table and listening to a guided mindfulness video on YouTube as a break from studying. Though to the untrained eye, it might have looked as if I was procrastinating or taking a nap.
 
I had heard of studies that showed a reduction in physician errors and improved pain management among those that practice MBSR. But even after my exposure to mindfulness, I still felt a little embarrassed about practicing it. Some students and physicians see mindfulness as alternative medicine and not “sexy” enough to study, so I didn’t want to be associated with it. I didn’t like to be seen at the weekly training provided as part of the study, and I don’t like using the phrase “meditation.” The only person whom I told that I was in the study was my girlfriend. I made sure not to be seen by anyone else as I headed there with my yoga mat. In order to avoid small talk and the chance of running into anyone, I showed up as close to the start time as possible – not very mindful.
 
But I got so much more from the study than a touchy-feely, new age way to manage stress. Although mindfulness may seem like a personal activity, I found the group setting instrumental for understanding some of its complexities. The class made me accountable for meditation, making me do it every day and discuss it every week with the group. Others shared the same difficulties I experienced, such as an active mind or the urge to move after lying still for 45 minutes, like we did in the first exercise of the course. I wanted to crawl out of my skin after lying still for so long. Fortunately, others shared this same experience giving me peace of mind and allowing me to further relax on future exercises.
 
Looking back, it’s interesting that I thought I could grasp the diet and exercise parts of preventive care but not the stress reduction. Mindfulness is like healthy diet and exercise in many ways. You don’t always want to eat right or exercise, but when you do it – just like when you practice mindfulness – you feel better. And just as you can’t expect results from one workout or one healthy meal, you cannot expect stress to disappear after one mindfulness meditation session. All three require practice and dedication to yield results. Also like diet and exercise, mindfulness practice is best enjoyed when practiced in a variety of ways. No one wants to do the same workout or eat the same healthy meal every day. Likewise, I don’t do the same meditation exercise every day. I didn’t realize this until deeper study, but there are numerous techniques. Those who embark on this journey, I think, will be pleasantly surprised by the results just as those who train for a 5k, half-marathon, or greater, and prove to themselves they can do it. 

Mindfulness might be particularly useful in primary care practices. While providers routinely discuss stress reduction with patients, now that I’ve experienced it, I’m not sure we understand what we are discussing. For example, stress reduction in a group setting may have a more significant impact than trying it alone, but I’m not sure primary care providers are recommending that. Clinicians who understand the tools for stress management, such as mindfulness, will be better equipped to help their patients.
 
What’s more, mindfulness can be a powerful tool for clinicians themselves. When I first learned about mindfulness, I saw it only as a potential technique for patients, but I see now that it will be just as beneficial to me personally. Mindfulness is not only about stress reduction but training your mind to focus on the present, the current patient, or even removing yourself from your patients and enjoying life outside of medicine. Through mindfulness, I learned how to accept what was going on in my head, categorize it, and make a mindful choice as to whether I wanted to address the thought now or later. A mindfulness routine could allow primary care providers to more efficiently process all the complaints, medications, and regulations each patient has. Increased efficiency may lead to improved patient interactions and ultimately improved care. As burnout in healthcare reaches epidemic levels, we could all benefit from a little mindfulness.

Charles Ebersbacher is a third-year student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is interested in innovative patient care and lifestyle medicine.  

Want to read more about complementary and alternative medicine? 
 
Posted by Sonya Collins on Jun 1, 2017 1:46 PM America/New_York
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