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Physician Health and Well-Being: A Simple Mindfulness Practice

A Simple Mindfulness Practice
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence– Thomas Merton

       Merton was talking about the violence we do to ourselves. Our lives are full of hurrying and worrying. Our to-do lists drive our behaviors. Our minds spend so much time in the past and the future. We don’t take time to ‘smell the roses.’ We mindlessly rush and hurry so much, we overlook the present- the only time we ever really have to live our lives. Mindfulness is an antidote to this epidemic of distraction.   

       Mindfulness can help us promote resilience, the ability to bounce back from life’s stressors as they push and pull us off our center. Mindfulness can help up manage stress and even find its energy potentially motivating. Mindfulness can help us prevent the burnout and exhaustion so prevalent across society. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone. It can help us avoid self-violence, improve our health and even save our lives.

       While the regular practice of mindfulness has been shown to help a wide variety of physical, mental, emotional and relational problems, the following instructions are not intended as treatment for any condition or a substitute for professional evaluation or treatment. Consult with your health provider regarding your use of this practice.

Get Comfortable– Begin by adopting a comfortable position- lying down, reclining or sitting.  Make any adjustments that help make you even 5 per cent more comfortable. Adjust a pillow to allow your neck to be in a neutral position- not too far forward (chin touching chest) or backward (chin jutting up). If you have back problems, it may help to place something under your knees if you are lying down.

Declare Your Intention– Your intention for this practice helps keep you connected to the reasons you want to be more mindful and honor each individual practice period as a step on your path toward a more intentional, healthy, happy, mindful life. Your intention may be to simply stay awake for at least 5 minutes as you relax and slow down. Or it may be to return to the sensations in the body or breath as you notice your attention has wandered off into thinking. AND SLEEPING IS OK ! Set a soft alarm if needed.

Slowing Down– Notice what it feels like in your body to simply slow down. What are the physical cues that you are slowing down? How can you tell you have stopped rushing and hurrying? It is good to recognize these cues of relaxation in the body. Your body is constantly giving you feedback. Tuning in to your body’s messages is an important skill, helping you know when to slow down or rest.
Mindfulness of the Body– Our body is a powerful asset in mindfulness practice. Our body is always HERE, even though our mind may be far away. Our body is always PRESENT, even though our mind may be in the past or the future. For this reason, we say that ‘mindfulness of the body is the first foundation of mindfulness practice.’ Notice how the body feels touching the surface you are on. Notice the tactile sensation of clothing touching your skin. Notice the coolness where the air touches your skin.

Mindfulness of the Breath– Notice how the breath feels moving in and out of the body. Focus on the tactile physical sensations of the breath as it moves in and out. Feel the air coming in the nostrils and leaving the nostrils. Feel the breath moving back and forth across the upper lip. Feel the air entering the nostril cool and dry… Feel the air leaving the nostril warm and moist. Feel the breath moving in and out across the back of the throat. Feel the rib cage gently expanding and contracting with each breath. Feel the belly rising and falling with each breath. Notice how awareness of the breath depends on awareness of the body.

5 Minutes a Day– Mindfulness practice has physiologic effects on the body, mind and emotions. In that sense, mindfulness acts like medications. We know that medications have to be taken regularly to have the desired health benefit. Mindfulness also has to be practiced regularly to achieve the desired effect-physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally. Skipping your medicine for a day or two can result in a drop in therapeutic blood levels. And skipping your mindfulness practice can diminish its effects as well. It is said that even 5 minutes a day can keep your mindfulness practice strong enough to have perceptible benefits. So, try to commit to at least 5 mindful minutes daily. Try being mindful of the body and the breath the last 5 minutes lying in bed before sleep at night or the first 5 minutes after waking each morning.
       As mindfulness grows in your life and your physiology, you can extend your practice time to suit your schedule- helping you avoid the self-violence associated with our fast-paced, distracted lifestyles. Mindfulness can help you improve your health, promote resilience, manage stress and cultivate the qualities of the heart- compassion, kindness, forgiveness and friendliness. It all starts with the self-care intention to simply slow down.

Resources-

Dr. Patterson’s guided audio recordings are at the Mind Body Studio web site at
http://www.mindbodystudio.org/?page_id=1594

About the Author

Dr Patterson spent 30 years in solo family medicine in Estill County/Irvine, Kentucky, where his staff included a mental health counselor and dietitian. He majored in psychology at Vanderbilt and has viewed his entire medical career through that mind body lens, including residencies in family medicine and preventive medicine and a master’s degree in public health. He is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, mindfulness-based stress reduction and yoga therapy. He is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is on the faculty of Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio on Southland Drive in Lexington, where he offers individual consultations and group classes for persons with stress-related chronic conditions and burnout prevention for health professionals, teachers, businesses, faith communities and non-profits, emphasizing a mindfulness-based approach to promoting resilience, managing stress, preventing burnout and cultivating compassion. Those with financial hardship simply pay as they are able.

He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org