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Career & Leadership

Meditation for Doctors

February 29, 2020

Did you know meditation is good for doctors? I’m an interventional radiologist, and I need to be calm and focused in my work. While some physicians may naturally have grace under pressure, I believe this can be cultivated. Hopefully, we hone this ability in training. And in my experience, it can be supported by meditation. Touted as a method to produce a calmer, more effective, and more focused you: what could be better for a physician? Since opening my mind to the benefits of meditation, I’ve found it fits into my day. I use it as a salve for stress and weariness. Sometimes, it provides an emotional hiatus. When I don’t have a dedicated block of time, I use little pockets of time for a micro-meditation. And I’ve come to realize there are small opportunities to be quiet and present, even if just for a minute.

The tightly wound doctor

For doctors, it can be a challenge to wait or pause. There’s always too much to do, and another person to care for. The surgical personality in particular is notoriously impatient and results-oriented. In fact, we take pride in it. Beyond personal tendencies, it’s a dictum of IR and surgery that the patient be diagnosed and treated as quickly and as safely as possible. In a very controlled way, we learn to rush all the time. So meditation for doctors, a moment to pause and clear the mind, can be a serious relief.    

Have you explored the benefits of meditation as a physician? 

There’s inherent stress in taking care of sick people, and oftentimes, sick people are anxious people. We treat diseases of all chronicity and severity without ever knowing how it will turn out or if we’ll be sued, no matter how good or careful we are. We interface with countless hospital staff to orchestrate care, from techs to nurses, administration to housekeeping. No matter how well everyone does their job, there are a lot of moving parts, and it’s stressful. That’s why you might consider meditation as a doctor.

Everybody is talking about meditation

Unless you are a hermit, you’ve probably heard lots about meditation, especially in the last decade. I was never particularly interested and thought it sounded “woo.” But as I prepared for the birth of my son a few years ago, my doula recommended a free meditation app called Insight Timer. With endless recordings and teachers, I could practice relaxation, so I’d be more likely to relax (hah!) through the stages of delivery. It’s been a friend ever since. 

There are other tools to try, but I’ve stuck with Insight Timer. In the app, you can filter thousands of meditation tracks and talks to find one that fits your goals, your mood, or your time frame. I’ve used the kids’ meditations to help my two year old ease off to sleep. Even if you don’t have children, consider listening to a kids’ meditation to recapture the imagination of your inner child. I’m serious! 

Meditation saves me as a doctor mom

Sometimes, a day off is more tiring than a day at work. Guided meditations save me after a morning of wrangling my toddler. A typical scenario involves putting him down for a nap, then being too wired to rest. The laundry and dishes beacon, and I try to get as many things done as I can while the little one naps. By the time the mid-afternoon slump hits, I’m truly exhausted. Even with twenty minutes of nap-time left, I can recharge with a guided meditation. I lay down and listen, as the calming suggestions smooth my frayed edges. My body responds based on what I need that day. If I need sleep, I doze off. But if I’m just sort of worn-out, I usually feel a boost in energy from meditating. 

Really. I was skeptical too. 

Other times I use the app right before bed to settle down. Swirling thoughts and unrequited to-do’s can keep me up. Thankfully, there are countless tracks focused on drifting off to sleep. 

Be present while resting at work

Doing a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap is one of the first scenarios it occurred to me to consider meditating at work, for a minute here or there. There’s nothing more boring than watching spinal fluid flow. After the small talk with the techs has tapered off, we wait for time to pass as the precious clear pink fluid drip… drip… drips into the tubes, one after the next. I live in the desert, where everyone seems to be dehydrated, so the flow is even slower. Rather than being bored, or letting my monkey brain run to the next case while my body is still stuck in the current one, I thought, could I use these few minutes to be present and focused on my breathing? 

Breathwork

Trust me, I have an aversion to breath-work and coached breathing- it makes me nervous. But my version of focus entails slowing down enough to feel that I’m alive, and to feel gratitude for the breath that automatically flows through me, supporting my health and all the miraculous systems working in my body. We’re not trained to pause to acknowledge things like this in medicine. But there’s time, if you look for it. 

There are other opportunities to pause, like in the midst of a tumor embolization. When blocking an artery with tiny microspheres, it helps to give time for the beads settle into the capillary bed before injecting more. But that takes patience. A few minutes in the angio suite can feel like a long time if you’re not doing anything but waiting. During an embo, I flush slowly and meditatively, as I visualize my treatment taking effect at the micron level.

When treating a stubborn venous stenosis, a prolonged balloon venoplasty can help. But for optimal treatment, you need to stop what you’re doing for one to three minutes. You could socialize with your first-assist, or crack a joke. But sometimes I allow the silence, to take in the present moment, in which I’m doing what I was born to do. This allows me to appreciate my position in life, and my massive privilege as a doctor, mom, wife, leader, and community member. These mini-meditations probably help keep me from burning out when times are tough. 

How is meditation supposed to help doctors? 

Particularly during those quick afternoon meditation sessions- as I got up recharged- I wondered how meditation actually works. In episode 68 of The Doctor Me First Podcast, Dr. Jill Wener discusses some of the science of meditation practice with the host, Dr. Errin Weisman. She explains the parasympathetic stimulation meditation provides, and how that helps us as doctors.

They even discuss how everyone has their own “threshold of woo,” which made me laugh out loud in my car. Maybe you embrace things that are “woo,” or maybe you might benefit from opening to the possibility of meditation and its benefits. As the two physicians joked about “actually knowing the location of the vagus nerve,” I knew I had to continue learning and practicing the millenia old practice

Ready to try or level-up in your meditation practice?

I plan to check out Dr. Wener’s programs myself. Her method strives to make meditation for doctors more accessible. Whether due to their unique time constraints or evidence-based mindset, doctors have some specific objections to this tool that could potentially help them be happier, healthier, and more effective in their roles. Her approach aims to teach observation of thought, without fighting or trying to stop thought altogether. It seems to bridge the gap for healthcare workers who struggle to find peace.   

In the intro to her course, Dr. Wener talks about filling a “bank account of patience.”

Instantly, I thought, “Sign me up for that!

I didn’t originally write this as a promo post, but if you are looking for help in mastering your mind through meditation, you can find it at Dr. Wener’s site, where she offers multiple online courses you can do at your own pace. See also jillwener.com for more information.

Enter coupon code TIREDSUPERHEROINE to receive 10% off any course (and you’ll benefit the mission of Tired Superheroine at the same time!)

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