This blog was written by guest writer, Dr Craig Hassed.
“I stumbled on mindfulness intuitively as a teenager. While I may not have called it that at the time, I can now look back and see that I was definitely practising the principles of mindfulness. In doing so, I quickly learned that being focused, present and less reactive to troublesome thoughts not only helped me deal better with the pressures of school, but also improved my performance in the exam room.
Knowing how helpful mindfulness was to me, I began thinking that it could be tremendously beneficial for others — particularly in the area of physical health. Because I trained in medicine at Melbourne University and the College of GP’s before I went to work at Monash University in 1989, I had lots of exposure to the medical field and knew that mindfulness could make a significantly positive difference in patients’ lives.
However, mindfulness was still a relatively new concept back then. The challenge was to explain exactly what it was and how it could help. I knew that if I could do that, it would be more accessible to medical students and doctors. So, that’s what I started to do and it’s the type of work I’ve continued to do ever since.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Although mindfulness can be looked at in a number of different ways, it’s often thought of as a form of meditation or, to use the more technical term, ‘attention training’. But it’s not just that — it’s also a way of living.
To be mindful essentially means to be focused, engaged and present as we go about our day-to-day activities — whether we’re at work or managing our personal lives.
Last year alone, there were close to 700 new papers in peer-reviewed journals on mindfulness and its applications in different settings
The principles of mindfulness are so beneficial that they form the foundation of many different psychotherapies, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and acceptance commitment therapy. The skills that a person develops as a result of practicing mindfulness can help with stress and anxiety, making it ideal for patients with mental health problems.
However, mindfulness isn’t just limited to helping people cope with stress. It actually has a range of applications in the mental health field. For instance, one of the main skills mindfulness practitioners develop is the ability to engage attention in a mindful way. That’s something that anyone can benefit from doing, but in particular, it’s been found extremely useful at preventing relapses of depression, overcoming insomnia and helping patients in drug rehab programs.
Yet, mindfulness extends far beyond the mental health field. Today, it’s even made its way to the playing field. A lot of elite athletes are using mindfulness to improve their performance. For instance, Richmond AFL team’s players practice mindfulness to improve the mental aspect of their game.
Likewise, mindfulness has even started to show up in schools. There are a few dozen studies on its benefits in education, and overall, mindfulness has been shown to improve not only resilience and emotional wellbeing in students, but also learning and memory. It can even help with children’s behavioural problems.
Mindfulness is also used in leadership training, because it’s been shown to improve communication, empathy and emotional intelligence. Naturally, those are all qualities that are highly valued in teamwork and leadership development.
As impressive as those benefits are, the physical health benefits may be even more so.
Mindfulness has been shown to minimise stress on the cardiovascular system by reducing the allostatic load — essentially, the physiological wear and tear of excessive stress
It’s also been shown to improve immune function and act as an anti-inflammatory. So, it can help reduce illnesses like infections and colds. It’s even been found to be useful in the treatment of chronic pain.
Mindfulness also slows down the rate of ageing, as measured by telomeres. In the brain sciences, it’s been shown to stimulate new brain cell growth in memory and executive functionary areas. It quiets down the activity of the amygdala, the brain’s stress centre, leading to improved cognitive functioning and sensory processing.
How Medical Practitioners Are Currently Being Taught Mindfulness
Monash University is actually the first university in the world to offer mindfulness as part of its core curriculum. The program I developed was designed to achieve four primary goals.
i) Our first goal was to help our medical students. As you might imagine, stress and mental health issues are significant for medical students at any university. To combat that, we wanted to offer our students a framework that would help them with stress management.
ii) Secondly, the modern doctor really needs to know about this emerging field of science and the clinical applications of it. To achieve that aim our program teaches students about the science behind this area of mind-body medicine and helps them understand how mindfulness can be beneficial as an adjunct for chronic illnesses.
iii) We also wanted to improve our students’ clinical performance — their communication, emotional intelligence and perception. These are all high-level clinical skills that help people become aware of the cognitive biases that often lead to bad decisions and clinical errors. Mindfulness improves vigilance and reduces those kinds of errors.
iv) Finally, we know that one day, this foundation could inspire our students to learn more about mindfulness and how they can use it in their consulting rooms. For instance, rather than just recommending it to their patients, they might be able to actually deliver mindfulness-based interventions.
Common Challenges Medical Practitioners Encounter When Learning Mindfulness
The most common barriers for practitioners — or anybody really — to practicing mindfulness are insight, motivation and effort. By insight, I mean that many people will dismiss it without actually understanding it or looking into the evidence behind it.
It’s also hard to get people enthused about mindfulness if they lack motivation. For instance, if someone is suffering from stress, you’ll often find that their motivation for learning mindfulness is a bit lukewarm. While it could be useful to them, they don’t tend to have a compelling reason to do it.
Mindfulness isn’t always easy. Sometimes learning it can even be quite challenging. For that reason, it requires a degree of effort — more so than simply taking a pill to alleviate stress or pain. That’s why it’s important for people to be taught by an experienced practitioner who can help them through those difficulties.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always occur, which is why effort is another big deterrent to developing a mindful practice.
Having said that, there’s a lot of value that a person gets out of making the effort, and I would strongly encourage people to do so if the concept of mindfulness is appealing to them.
How Patients Are Responding to Mindfulness Programs
I run a lot of programs for staff and students at Monash University and also in the community. For example, at the Anxiety Recovery Centre in Melbourne and I’ve seen many patients who have been helped with their anxiety, stress and mental problems.
I also do a lot of work with cancer and MS support groups and I’ve seen some truly extraordinary things in the course of that work. Not only have I witnessed people coping better with debilitating or life-threatening illnesses, but I’ve also seen better health outcomes and improved symptom management.
Those are just a few of the programs I’ve been involved with. I also run mindfulness programs for people in schools, the local community and in workplaces. Employers want to help people improve their efficiency and work performance and mindfulness helps employees cope better with work pressures and other stressors.
How General Practices Can Adopt Mindfulness Programs
There are a few different ways I’d recommend learning more about mindfulness. One way is through a free online mindfulness course we developed at Monash University called ‘Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance’. The course runs three times a year on the Future Learn platform; the next one is starting on February 5. So, anyone who’s interested can register for that class and do it on their own time once it goes live. To date, we’ve had close to a quarter million people take the course in just over two years.
Another good resource is mindfulness apps. According to one major review of all the mindfulness apps, Headspace and Smiling Mind are the two best mindfulness apps in the world
Then of course, there are some great books on a variety of mindfulness topics. For example, the book I wrote with Stephen McKenzie, ‘Mindfulness for Life’, goes into the practice and application of mindfulness — so that’s one place to start. If somebody is particularly interested in the mental health side of it, ‘The Mindful Way through Depression’ is a very good book, as is ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are’, a classic written by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
The University of Massachusetts (UMAS) Centre for Mindfulness also has a lot of great resources on its website; Jon Kabat-Zinn set that up some years ago. Bangor University is another university that’s very well-known for its mindfulness centre.
Any of these resources would be a great place to start for people who want to learn more about mindfulness and how they can begin practising it.
Tips for General Practitioners When Practicing Mindfulness Themselves
I’d recommend practising mindfulness meditation twice a day. For instance, you could start with five minutes before work in the morning. Then, after the work day before your evening gets underway, you could spend another five minutes doing it. Over time you can build up the length of the practice.
While those activities will help, really it’s that step-by-step, moment-by-moment, job-by-job sort of focus where you’ll experience the greatest benefits of mindfulness. Throughout the day, mindfulness will help improve your function with better focus, reduce stress and distractions, and eliminate your tendency to ruminate by thinking of all those things you still have yet to do.
Essentially, an ongoing practice throughout the day will help someone be more present as they go about their day-to-day life.
I suggest that people also fill their days with very short periods of meditation — anywhere from fifteen to sixty seconds. For instance, you could just pause for a few moments between patients. These little spaces throughout the day will help you remember to be mindful.
Then, as you go throughout your daily activities, you just want to attend to one thing at a time. Rather than ruminating about the thousand things you have to do before you can leave work, you’d instead focus on whatever you’re doing at the moment. By incorporating these few simple exercises, I guarantee you’ll start to experience some of the benefits of mindfulness.
Tips for General Practitioners When Talking to Patients About Mindfulness
For a person with mild to moderate stress, some of the resources I recommended can be very beneficial. However, a person with more significant issues — mental health, clinical, or pain issues, for example — really needs personalised care. By that, I mean that they should learn mindfulness from a well-trained expert practitioner.
Typically, that learning should occur through a face-to-face consultation or course. Perhaps most importantly, the person teaching in a challenging clinical situation like the ones I just described needs to not only have good mental health or clinical credentials, but they also need to be a very experienced mindfulness practitioner. Unfortunately, if they’re not very experienced with mindfulness, they may teach it poorly which can cause the patient problems.
So, generally speaking, I advise doctors with just a little bit of mindfulness experience to use it for very simple things. However, for more complex problems, I suggest they refer patients to a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or even a pain management clinic, depending on the problems their patients are experiencing.