When it comes to healthcare and well-being, we like to know that what is being prescribed has been tested and that there is evidence that suggests effectiveness. In recent years, we have seen a steep rise in the research pointing to mindfulness and compassion as reliable ways for healthcare providers to improve their resilience, performance, relationships, and well-being.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when we deliberately direct our attention toward our inner experience, toward others, and toward the environment around us. But more than just focusing your mind, it’s about your mindset—the attitude or filter through which you view the world. Mindfulness reinforces a mindset of being open, receptive, accepting, and compassionate.
You can change your mental patterns through repeated practice of new mindsets and habits—a concept called neuroplasticity. Through the repetition of mental practices, such as mindful breathing, meditation, and compassion practices you can strengthen the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, attentional control, emotional regulation, and compassion. The science is compelling. A study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, showed that only eight minutes of mindfulness practice improved concentration and reduced mind-wandering.
Here’s the bottom line—and the opportunity: You can learn to radically shift how you relate to your daily experiences and to other people and cultivate the capacity to be more mindful and compassionate. It just takes intention, commitment, and practice, like most things.
Mindful breathing trains the ability to focus attention while also calming the mind and body:
Use the breath as an anchor. Feel the sensations of breathing: air coming in at the nose, the chest or abdomen rising and falling. Wherever you can most easily discern the breath can be your anchor of attention.
Recognize and return. When your mind wanders, as it will naturally do, simply notice it and gently return your attention to the breath.
Follow a full cycle of breathing: the inhale, the exhale, and the space in between the breaths. Allow your mind to rest on the breath.
Use helpful phrases, such as “In, Out,” or “Here, Calm,” or counting breaths to hold your attention as you inhale and exhale.
Loving-kindness meditation strengthens caring and compassion for yourself and other people, and promotes emotional balance:
Begin with mindful breathing to calm the mind and body. You can do this in just three breaths, or take a few minutes, depending on your day.
Now recall a loved one whom you love easily and unconditionally. Fully see them in your mind’s eye, smiling at you, sending you loving wishes. Sense the positive emotions that might arise in you.
Offer kind wishes to your loved one. Silently repeat phrases such as “May you be happy”; “May you be healthy”; “May you be peaceful”; “May you know that you are loved.”
Next recall coworkers, patients, and colleagues, and send them kind wishes, repeating the same set of phrases. You can extend these wishes in ever widening circles.
Extend further, to the entire healthcare organization, or hospital, or industry. You can widen the circle to all living beings as you strengthen your practice.
End with sending kind wishes to yourself and notice the effect in your own mind and body.
Sustainable, Portable, Adaptable Tools for Well-Being
Try integrating mindful breathing or loving-kindness meditation into your everyday routine. Commit to 10 minutes a day for a month, in the morning, on a short break, or between patients. And don’t just take it from the research—be your own scientist. Tune in to what you observe: a change in your emotional state, a decrease in self-focus with a shift to being oriented to others, or perhaps the associated positive feelings of well-being. Where do you feel this in your body? This shift powers an increase in empathy and compassion, which can benefit you and everyone in your practice—and in your life.
May you be well.
Laurie Cameron is the author of The Mindful Day: Practical Ways to Find Focus, Calm, and Joy from Morning to Evening (National Geographic, 2018). http://bit.ly/themindfulday
Article first appeared in the Journal of Medical Practice Management, January–February 2018