When people ask me about how I discovered mindfulness, I don’t usually go into the full story. It had happened unexpectedly, and I still think about it often.
At the time, I had been working at MD for two years as a Senior Financial Consultant, offering comprehensive financial planning advice to physicians and their families.
One afternoon, I was set to meet with a new client, whose account I had just taken over from a colleague. I knew that she was the spouse of a physician, about 40 years old, and had three young children.
I also knew that the family had endured an unimaginable loss about three years earlier. I stood hesitantly at the client’s door, uncertain about what I was going to encounter. This I had no experience with at all.
One afternoon, the woman and her husband had been driving home from a family outing when they were in a car accident. The crash killed the physician and left his wife paralyzed from the waist down, permanently in a wheelchair, and now having to raise three kids on her own.
My mind flashed story lines of what to expect: a sad, bitter individual—angry with the universe for leaving her in such horrific circumstances. As I tentatively rang the doorbell, I braced myself for a direct encounter with this family’s tragedy.
Unexpectedly, over the intercom, a light, pleasant voice beckoned me in. I entered, and the same voice, in the same cheerful tone, invited me into the kitchen.
And there she was, in her wheelchair, smiling up at me—no sadness, no bitterness, no anger—just a clear acceptance of life as it was.
Our financial planning discussions inevitably led to how, under such challenging circumstances, she had managed to find her equilibrium again. Her guidance changed my life as she taught me about mindfulness. One of the key teachings is that our own thoughts—not our external circumstances—create our perception of life.
I learned that to be in touch with our thoughts, we need to calm our minds and bring ourselves into the present moment instead of regretting an unchangeable past or fretting about an unknowable future. In other words, we need to become mindful.
Mindfulness practice for busy physicians
While it’s been proven that mindfulness benefits our emotional intelligence and our physical and mental health, many physicians feel they have no time to be mindful. So, with this perceived impediment in mind, I focus on how you can put mindfulness into practice—today.
Here are seven simple mindfulness techniques to help bring you back into the present moment and respond more wisely to whatever difficulties life may send your way.
- STOP. Periodically, throughout your day, try this:
S = Stop whatever you are doing.
T = Take two or three deep breaths. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale for a count of eight.
O = Observe any thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations you are experiencing. Do this in a detached, non-judgmental manner and just let them be—there is no need to engage with them.
P = Proceed with self-kindness: take a walk, do the stairs, have a healthy snack break, enjoy the company of a friend, or just close your eyes and do nothing at all.
- S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. Permanently shift everything you do into a lower gear—walking around the clinic or hospital, consulting with colleagues, charting, treating patients, etc. This sends a signal to your brain that you’ve got things under control, which dulls the stress response.And a deliberate, slower-paced approach to the practice of medicine will actually make you more productive, not less, by reducing errors and eliminating inefficient scattered thinking.
- Focus on one task at a time. Multi-tasking induces stress—don’t do it!
- Take a five-senses break. Periodically throughout your day, take a moment to turn your focus to each of your five senses in turn—what you see, hear, smell, feel and taste.
- Do a body scan. Close your eyes and focus your attention momentarily on sensations felt in each body part, starting with your toes and working up to your head.
- Pause and breathe. Before moving on to each new task or patient, pause and take a few slow, conscious breaths.
- Find your feet. While walking, bring conscious attention to the sensations in your feet—the pressure as they press into the floor, their warmth, and the friction points where they contact your shoes.
These may sound rather mundane, but if you make a point of incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you will find your stress materially reduced and your ability to wisely handle life’s challenges enhanced.