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Healthy Balance

Mindfulness for Caregivers: How the Helpers Get Helped (Part 1)

In January, we looked at several ways our hospital uses mindfulness and other integrative medicine methods to help patients heal. But patients also benefit when our doctors also learn to practice mindfulness – they give better care.

To find out how this works, I spoke with both a mindfulness class teacher and a class participant from the community.

First up, John Schorling, MD, who leads mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) classes for doctors and other care providers twice a year with the UVA Mindfulness Center. As the class description explains, the programs provide benefits in three areas:

  • Improved communication with patients
  • Reduced work stress
  • Improved balance between work and personal life

Dr. Schorling’s story tells more. 

How did you get introduced to meditation?
My first introduction to meditation was 25 years ago when I was traveling in India and Nepal. Especially in Nepal, people meditate as part of their everyday lives and just seeing how pervasive it was there and how the people seem open and not so stressed.

I meditated off and on after this and, developed a meditation practice through the 1990s after moving to Charlottesville in 1988. I started going to meditation groups here in town then. 

How did you get involved with the UVA Mindfulness Center?
The center here was started 14 years ago by Allie Rudolph, who still teaches in the Mindfulness Center, and Tussi Kluge. This was one of the first mindfulness centers in an academic setting after the University of Massachusetts. I took my first MBSR class around 2000 and it really resonated with me, so I took more classes, took the training offered through U Mass, then started teaching classes with Matt Goodman at UVa. 

UVA’s Mindfulness Center started classes for doctors and healthcare providers in 2004. Why?
Matt Goodman, MD, and I are both physicians who see patients here, and we recognized that physicians and other healthcare providers are under a lot of stress. We both found the mindfulness classes helpful for us personally; it was life-changing for me. We knew a lot of other doctors who were really stressed and thought it could be helpful.

Where does this stress come from?
For doctors, it comes from a number of things. Stress comes from worrying about their patients and wanting their patients to do well. And often there’s only a certain number of things we can actually control. There’s the natural progression of diseases we can’t always successfully treat. There are behavioral issues where it’s the patients who have control, like diet or smoking or other addictive disorders.

So doctors can feel a lot of responsibility in caring for their patients. Recognizing those things we can’t control and focusing efforts on what we can control allows us to make the best decisions for the best outcomes.

Who takes these classes?
Doctors, nurses, therapists, and any other care-related professional – physical therapists, chaplains, occupational, counselors, social workers, etc.

Can you talk about the benefits people get from taking these classes?
One thing they get of our classes is, if we’re not careful, we care providers tend to blame ourselves for things that happen that we didn’t have any control over.

For me personally, the biggest thing I’ve gained is a better ability to discern the difference between what’s my responsibility and what’s not; I’m much more successful at letting those thoughts go, which has freed up a whole lot of time and made me much more effective.

And this bears out in the research.
Yes. Studies looking at the parts of the brain that are activated when people are caught in repetitive thinking or worrying show that people who’ve taken the classes when asked to think about something they’re worried about and then something they want to make a decision about, they are much better able to switch from the worrying brain to the executive decision-making part of the brain.

Why meditation? Why does this work?
The mind and the body are intimately connected in many different ways; signals are continuously going in both directions between the mind and the body, most below our level of awareness – but that doesn’t make them any less important.

Meditation teaches us to pay attention, to increase our awareness so that we can address what’s affecting us, and how we do our jobs – as doctors and as people.- and make more informed decisions.

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