Why is Mindfulness so Challenging for Healthcare Workers?

So maybe you’re curious about establishing a mindfulness practice. As with acquiring any new skill, there’s a bit of a learning curve involved, and it has more to do with you than with the practise of meditation itself. One of the most common concerns about learning to meditate for the first time is “how do I do it, and how do I do it right?” The truth is, you’ve probably already learned to meditate informally before, whether that be through writing, painting, dancing, exercising; we have hobbies that we associate a sense of inner peace and tranquility with. But meditating formally requires learning about yourself and how to be with yourself and your thoughts, non-judgmentally, in an intentional way. This sounds simple, but there are many reasons why it might not be so easy to do this in a formal way. This is especially true when working at the patient bedside; as a staff or trainee, most of the day is spent taking histories, generating comprehensive differentials, and participating in clinical decision-making that has important consequences for patients and their families. Particularly in the junior years of training, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to perform and acquire as much experience as possible. It can therefore be extremely challenging to find the space to watch your thoughts, those that have an impact for your health and well-being.

We will always be busy people, it’s just in the nature of what we do

There are other challenges specific to the nature of being a healthcare trainee that might interfere with mindfulness. Time seems to be a limiting factor for many, not only for clerks spending most of their days in the hospitals but also for the students studying during fundamentals of medicine (year one and two). With little time left over at the end of a long study sessions or a clinic day, you’re left choosing how you’re going to spend those few hours to yourself. Striking a balance between eating well, exercising, preparing for lecture or a clinical rotation before calling it a night, can be exhausting. Where does it leave you with regards to establishing a mindfulness practice? In a tough spot, especially when the basics (eating a balanced diet, getting a good night’s sleep) that allow you to make it through the week, often come before everything else. I think it’s important to remember that we will always be busy people, it’s just in the nature of what we do. The philosophy of mindfulness is to be in the present moment, paying attention to life right now, so ultimately there will never be a better time to start meditating besides now. You can meditate for as little or as long as you’d like, that’s the beauty of it! It would be easy to tell yourself that you’ll get to something after the exam, after the research project gets finalized and presented, after, after, after. Just remember your wellbeing and your health matter right now and it’s ok to step away from the pager, the (100-slide) PowerPoint and take just 5 minutes to sit with your thoughts. 

It can be challenging to put our own needs first as healthcare workers however. I think it’s understood that when you enter the health care field whether it’s physiotherapy, nursing, medicine, occupational therapy, there will be personal sacrifices of time and energy. So along these lines, spending time doing self-care especially when you also have a family to care for and friends to catch up with, might bring on feelings of guilt; prioritizing your needs seems to go against the philosophy of fast-paced learning and performance that’s been instilled in our minds and against the caregiving roles we hold in both our personal and professional lives. To add another layer of complexity to the problem, healthcare workers and trainees experience heavy and intense emotions that can be both extremely positive (assisting in a delivery, witnessing the successful completion of a rehabilitation program) and disheartening (witnessing progressive decline of an individual’s functional status, discovering the recurrence of a cancer). It might be equally difficult to potentially re-live these experiences through meditation since we are intentionally sitting with our emotions and thoughts.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s the initiation and maintenance of meditation that poses unique challenges to healthcare workers. If you can take a few minutes of every day to meditate in any shape or form that suits you (guided practice, hobbies, yoga, stretching) and step away from all that background noise telling you that you’re stressed and tired, you will feel more present with yourself and may even start to feel more energized and less overwhelmed as you go about your day. 

This article was written by Madison Le Gallee, a second-year medical student at McGill University and a member of the McGill Med Mindfulness Group.

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