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What really is mindfulness?

“The purpose of washing the dishes is to wash the dishes.”

Confused? Allow me to explain.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first way is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes. The second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.

This is mindfulness. The action of washing the dishes and placing your attention and focus on this task rather than the task of getting the dishes clean.

What would this look like in practice? You could begin by feeling the warm water on your skin as you rinse the plates, the softness of the sponge as you wipe the plate, and the coolness on your skin as the water evaporates off your hands. There is much to place your attention on or be mindful of. In this process, you quieten parts of your frontal lobe and reduce your cognitive load, entering a flow state, where you lose your sense of self and time. As a bonus during this process, the dishes also become clean!

Mindfulness is essentially a psychological state of present-moment awareness.

Why is mindfulness important?

Good for doctors, good for patients.

Present-moment awareness has been shown to facilitate an adaptive response to daily stressors. Research also shows that mindfulness produces less avoidance and more approach coping as a response to stress than relaxation or self-affirmation controls.

Stress Reduction

Mindfulness can help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and a better ability to handle stress.

Reduced rumination

Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with the control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.

Focus

Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness are correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning.

Less emotional reactivity

Researchers have shown that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task than people who saw the pictures but did not meditate.

Relationship satisfaction

Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict, is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations and predicts relationship satisfaction.

How does mindfulness benefit my patients?

Mindfulness is especially suited to healthcare workers because it can help counteract the worrying, perfectionism and self-judgment that is so common within the medical profession. Mindfulness helps doctors listen more carefully to their patients, show more compassion, and approach problems in a fresh, open-minded way.

Dr Craig Hassed, senior lecturer in the Monash University Department of General Practice and author of Mindfulness for Life, says doctors who practice mindfulness can be more effective. “For a doctor, to be mindful in practice means really paying attention to what you are doing and really listening to the patient, paying attention to the procedure, picking up the clinical signs and being aware of your own biases and thought processes. It makes doctors less likely to make a diagnostic error,” he says.

A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine shows that doctors with mindfulness skills communicate well with patients, and provide better quality care.

How do I incorporate mindfulness into my busy life?

Have you tried 15-second mindfulness? The Wiper Breath Release (adapted from the Happy MD) can be done right before you walk into a patient’s room or start a busy clinic and is very quick and effective.

An infographic showcasing a number of ways of introducing mindfulness into our lives.

Practising mindfulness can be as simple as eating lunch outside in the sunshine – with the tech turned off. Being present with nature and feeling the sun on your skin, and the softness of your sandwich.

Mindfulness can also be more structured and formalised such as in meditations, guided meditations, yoga, Pilates or anything that gets you into a flow state e.g. playing/listening to music, drawing, exercising or even just washing the dishes!

Resources

  1. Treat app and website. Treat has been evaluated extensively and shown to significantly reduce burnout and increase mindfulness in health professionals
  2. Calm is a simple smartphone app that teaches mindfulness and makes it easy to follow a daily meditation practice.

References

Barnes, S., etal., (2007) The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Martial and Family Therapy. 2007, 33(4): 482-500. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00033.x

Beach, MC et al; A multicenter study of physician mindfulness and health care quality,  Ann Fam Med Sep-Oct 2013;11(5):421-8. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507.

Chambers, R. et al., (2008) The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style and Affect. Cogn Ther Res (2008) 32:303–322 DOI 10.1007/s10608-007-9119-0

Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1235–1245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.018

Donald, J. N., Atkins, P. W. B (2016) Mindfulness and Coping with Stress: Do levels of perceived stress matter?. Mindfulness, 7:1423-1436 DOI 10.1007/s12671-016-0584-y

Donald, J. N., Atkins, P. W. B., Parker, P. D., Christie, A. M., & Ryan, R. M. (2016). Daily stress and the benefits of mindfulness: Examining the daily and longitudinal relations between present-moment awareness and stress responses. Journal of Research in Personality, 65, 30–37. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2016.09.002

Drummond, D (MD)., (2014) Stop Physician Burnout.  Heritage Press Publications

Hanh, T. H. (199) The Miracle of Mindfulness. Beacon Press

Hassad, C & McKenzie, S., (2012) Mindfulness for Life, Exisle Publishing

Kang et al., 2019). https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1039856219848838

Moore, A & Malinowski, P., (2009) Mediation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Conscious Cogn 2009 Mar;18(1):176-86. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.12.008. Epub 2009 Jan 31.

Ortner, C. N. M., etal., (2007) Mindfulness medication and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion. 31:271-283

Remmers, C., Topolinski, S., & Koole, S. L. (2016). Why being mindful may have more benefits than you realize: Mindfulness improves both explicit and implicit mood regulation. Mindfulness, 7(4), 829–837. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-016-0520-1

Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). Mindful relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 464–481. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00032.x

About the authors

  • Dr Sabrina Barrett is a Paediatric Advanced Trainee at Perth Children’s Hospital and an accredited motivational interviewer. She is interested in paediatric neuropsychiatry and developmental medicine, with a research focus on improving outcomes in children with functional disorders. Passionate about educating the next generation of doctors she can often be found mentoring medical students or giving presentations at grand rounds and journal clubs about functional disorders.

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