A head start with mindfulness

Don’t dismiss the meditation technique as a fad: its well documented benefits for those in demanding careers make a strong case for teaching it at university, says Craig Hassed | Times Higher Education

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Mindfulness is a hot topic these days, but its potential importance to higher education has not yet been broadly recognised. It can be described as a form of meditation and a way of living. It is a mental discipline that involves not only sharpening present-moment attention but also cultivating the attitude with which we pay attention: one of curiosity, acceptance, openness and compassion.

Mindfulness is easily marginalised by hard-nosed academic disciplines, and its mischaracterisation as a mere relaxation exercise means that its utility is commonly overlooked in the training of professionals such as doctors, lawyers and chief executives. Yet mounting evidence since the turn of the millennium is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

The tidal wave began with studies into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in preventing the recurrence of depression. Subsequently, many further applications have been documented, including combating addictions, chronic pain and infertility.

Indeed, some see mindfulness as a panacea. The reality, though, is probably more complex. Like physical exercise, cultivating awareness is a basic human need, but not everyone will be ready to learn about it or want to do it. Mindfulness demands application and perseverance and is sometimes uncomfortable.

As well as improving their attention, mindfulness has many other benefits for future professionals. For example, a 2004 Australian study tracked the mental health of medical interns throughout their first year of working life. It found that 75 per cent had burnout by the eighth month, and 73 per cent had a diagnosable mental illness (mostly depression and/or anxiety) at least once. Furthermore, a British Medical Journal study in 2008 found that a doctor with depression makes more than six times as many medication and prescribing errors as a doctor without. Considering that medical errors are the third most common cause of death in the US, this points to a major deficiency in our training of professionals destined for demanding jobs. It can’t just be about transferring technical skills and knowledge; enhancing practitioners’ mental health and preventing errors should be seen as aligned objectives.

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Six mindfulness techniques for physicians

What goes through your mind in the moment before you walk into the room to see your next patient? A flurry of thoughts about all the patients you’ve already seen and the mountain of admin tasks you need to finish later today? | Medical News Today

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But what if you paused – for just 3 seconds – as you touch the door handle, took a breath to be present, and let go of all that has gone before and all that is ahead of you?

Everyone has time to do this, Ronald M. Epstein, M.D. – a professor of medicine at the University of Rochester in New York, a family and palliative care physician, and author of Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity – told Medical News Today.

He uses the “doorknob” example in the many international lectures he gives each year on mindfulness, but readily admits that he is as skeptical as the next doctor.

“I don’t like this touchy feely stuff. I am not a new age kind of person. I am very skeptical,” Dr. Epstein explained. “Some people say ‘I can’t stop my thoughts.’ Well, it’s not about stopping your thoughts – it’s about paying attention to them,” he noted.

For Dr. Epstein, mindfulness is a powerful tool for medical professionals in dealing with personal stress, being more compassionate, and reducing clinical errors.

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