When you’re being chased by a tiger, you probably won’t stop to admire a four-leaf clover.
Practicing medicine can be undeniably stressful. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and miss out on the beauty that’s all around us.
Michael J. Baime, M.D.
But Michael J. Baime, M.D., founder and director of Penn Medicine’s Mindfulness Program, said learning to practice mindfulness -- which involves purposely redirecting attention to the present moment -- can help combat stress and burnout, as well as anxiety, anger, fatigue and depression.
“Often we’re not in touch with what’s happening right now. We’re distracted by our thoughts, memories and plans – our whole lives,” Dr. Baime told an overflow crowd of Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute clinicians and staff at a June CME event.
“Awareness of your immediate environment, especially people, means that you’re there. That alone is profoundly restful.”
Dr. Baime began practicing meditation as a teenager. As a primary-care physician, he recognized the value of mindfulness for both patients and caregivers. Penn’s program has trained over 16,000 people in mindfulness-based stress reduction since 1990.
Learning to practice mindfulness is as simple as training yourself to notice when you’re feeling tension and redirecting your thoughts to what’s happening right now. A growing body of research shows the power of mindfulness to heal, he said.
“Most often what’s happening right now is nothing,” Dr. Baime said. “You can take a breath and relax. … What matters most is the heart of the patients who have come to you for care.”
Stress isn’t just uncomfortable and unpleasant, he said. “As medical professionals, we greatly underestimate the impact of stress, distress, depression and anxiety on the body.”
Regularly practicing mindfulness can actually change the wiring in your brain, Dr. Baime said. Healthcare professionals who practice mindfulness report decreased stress and increased empathy, he said, and Penn research also suggests that patient satisfaction improves.
“Take that part of your mind that notices and bring it to rest on something present in your experience right then,” he said. “If you do that over and over, you’ll be more present in your own life.”
When you’re feeling threatened, it’s impossible not to focus on the threat and therefore miss that four-leaf clover, he said. The tightness you feel persists even after the threat is gone. Practicing mindfulness helps you notice the stress reaction that’s happening and intervene before it ramps up.
Mindfulness also helps connect you to sources of healing you already have inside, Dr. Baime said.
“When we continue to rest our attention, we find confidence and a deeper steadiness inside ourselves when we need it,” he said. “It’s always there.”