American Association for Physician Leadership

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness 101: An Increasingly Popular Technique to Reduce Physician Burnout

Discover how this simple concept can alter your response to stress.

Consider this: physicians spend an average of 13-16 minutes per appointment with their patients. But how much of that time is spent focused on your patient? When you see your next patient, pause for a moment and ask yourself what’s truly on your mind…The stressful demands of medicine often pull a physician’s thoughts in several directions. Are you fretting over late appointments? Are you ruminating over unfinished paperwork? Are you still thinking about billing or how to manage staff? To restore focus while achieving a refreshed sense of well-being, physicians are increasingly turning to mindfulness as an effective way to battle physician burnout.

What is Mindfulness?

Simply put, mindfulness is a way of remaining in the present while processing unfolding events and feelings in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way. In other words, focus on the present instead of dwelling on past problems or anxiously anticipating future concerns. Rooted in a Buddhist philosophy that was popularized as a stress-reliever by Jon Kabat Zinn during the 1970s, modern-day mindfulness often incorporates meditation exercises as a means of altering your relationship with your thoughts. Mindfulness exists in personal and professional settings and is endorsed by therapists for patients with anxiety and anxiety-related physical symptoms such as GI and blood pressure problems. Companies like Google and Comcast incorporate mindfulness training into leadership programs to enhance focus and beat stress.

How is Mindfulness Connected to Wellness & Physician Burnout?

Physicians live in a VUCA environment – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – where even the most resilient physicians can feel overwhelmed to the point of burnout. Mindfulness helps alleviate burnout and builds resiliency by changing the way your brain reacts to stressful situations through neuroplasticity. Over time, the repeated practice of mindfulness can strengthen the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, emotional regulation, and compassion. Studies by the University of California, Santa Barbara, reveal that most participants practicing mindfulness reported improved concentration and reduced mind-wandering, while studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Family Medicine reported that physicians felt more empathetic and attentive toward patients and achieved higher levels of satisfaction with their overall quality of life.   

Mindfulness Exercises & Meditations

There are numerous mindfulness exercises for beginners that last as little as 60 seconds at a time and can be incorporated throughout the day. It’s important to know that mindfulness techniques are varied – some more effective for one individual than another – and that the key is to test different techniques until you find which resonate best with you.
Mindfulness instructor Tara Brach encourages the RAIN method of mindfulness – recognize, allow, investigate, nurture – for physicians experiencing stress. First, recognize what is happening, then allow the experience to exist, investigate with kindness, and experience a natural awareness that comes from noticing the event rather than identifying with it. This can help you avert the sense of being overwhelmed and allow you to focus and take action during stressful situations. 
An alternative mindfulness meditation technique is focused breathing in which you concentrate entirely on the feeling of your chest moving up and down and the sensation of air going in and out of your nostrils or mouth. It’s natural for the mind to sometimes wander, but when it does, gently refocus on your breathing. To maintain that focus, it might help to mentally count each breath or repeat the phrase “in, out”.
As you continue to test different mindfulness exercises, consider how they might improve wellness within your organization. For instance, begin meetings with a minute or two of guided meditations to help team members clear their minds and prepare them to focus and discuss new ideas – or encourage them to take “mindful breaks,” such as taking short walks or writing in a journal as opposed to checking work emails or their phone.

Beginning Your Mindfulness Journey

A quick search on Google or YouTube yields thousands of results for additional mindfulness exercises and routines, and mobile apps like Headspace and Calm offer numerous free, guided meditations. You can also find a therapist who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (CBT) methods through sites like Psychology Today.
Mindfulness may seem challenging or dull at first, but the key is to try different techniques and be consistent with them for a few weeks or months. That way, you can discover the positive effect mindfulness has on your sense of wellness and how you interact and empathize with patients.

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The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


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formerly known as the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE)