Mindfulness – to be aware in the present moment without judgement – can apply to all fields and professions. I was recently asked to write a piece for the Wellness Office of McGill University’s Postgraduate Medical Education Department, exploring how mindfulness has contributed to my medical practice as a pediatrics resident. The following is thus my self-reflection on the topic of mindfulness and mental health care; my experience of how mindfulness allowed me not only to better connect with my patients during my psychiatry rotation, but also allowed me to foster greater self resilience and emotional well-being during the process!
How has mindfulness affected your work and profession?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), assigns the following operational definition to the concept of mindfulness; “paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” To a great extent, this particular way of being – of being mindful, nurtured my personal learning, connection with patients, and sense of personal wellness, during my most recent child and adolescent psychiatry rotation.
The nature of the rotation was one that required a great deal of resilience when it came to emotional health and wellbeing. On a daily basis I was esteemed to the responsibility of attempting, to my best ability, a therapeutic connection with mostly adolescents who were presenting at extremely vulnerable points in their lives. The “histories of presenting illness” were often laden with a heaviness, as patients recounted personal experiences involving debilitating anxieties, low mood, dark thoughts, social isolation and hardships that at times challenged their very will to live.
Being truly and intentionally present in these patient encounters quickly came to carry on two distinctive and equally important meanings for my practice as a resident – both a shared and introspective presence became the cornerstones of my practice. Firstly, being present meant mindfully engaging in a shared presence with the patient; ensuring that through conscientious listening and thoughtful discussion the patient felt heard, felt validated, felt rightfully seen as a whole person. Through this intentional shared presence, I had better chances of transforming what could be solely experienced as history taking into what I hoped would also serve as a therapeutic intervention. Secondly, my mindful practice also drew on engaging in an introspective presence. More than ever it became important that I attend to my own emotions in response to the patient encounters that I was experiencing. In order to work towards emotional resilience and so that I may maintain my own personal wellbeing, I worked on my capacity to not only identify the emotions that I was feeling but also to observe them as outside my immediate experience in order to better understand them, and react more mindfully. This approach proved to be protective – a means of “debriefing with myself”, so to speak.
It was inevitable that the patient stories before me had the inherent potential to evoke strong emotions in me; by practicing mindfully I was able to exert some control over how these thoughts and feelings affected not only my ability to be present for the patient, but also safeguard my own wellbeing.
What I love and find most humbling about medicine is the idea that, by building a therapeutic alliance with a patient, we become woven into each and every patient’s unique life story. These life stories, as in my psychiatry rotation, can sometimes be considerably heavy and emotionally demanding of the physician. In these situations, a mindful practice has the potential to not only ensure a stronger therapeutic alliance between doctor and patient, but also fosters greater emotional resilience for the physician.
Original post can be found at: https://www.mcgill.ca/thewelloffice/our-services/pgme/residents-corner