Everyone feels overwhelmed or anxious at times, but physicians can't afford to be distracted during patient interactions. That's why the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA provides mindful awareness training, which encourages stress-relief techniques students can use in the classroom and in their future careers.
"Mindful awareness is about being able to make yourself fully present in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future — just immersed in your sensations or your interactions with another person," explains Margaret Stuber, MD, Assistant Dean for Career Development and Well-Being.
Although scientific research into mindful awareness has centered primarily on stress reduction, a growing body of evidence suggests it also eases depression and chronic pain, boosts immune systems, decreases inflammation and improves sleep disorders. Just as importantly, mindful practitioners are better communicators — an invaluable skill for doctors.
Mindful student, mindful doctor
At UCLA, first-year medical students are introduced to mindful awareness during a module about physiologic reactions to stress. "They're learning stress-relief techniques they could prescribe for others," says Dr. Stuber. "Then, in the third year, we teach mindfulness as a means of self care. We also do a mindful awareness exercise where students practice truly listening to another person. This seems simple, but physicians are notorious for interrupting people [amid important conversations]."
During the exercise, students take turns talking about loved ones who bring them joy. While the audience practices listening, the speaker experiences the benefits of positive psychology through the people they are describing. "Research shows we can actually change the way we think by regularly focusing on joy, gratitude and other positive emotions," explains Dr. Stuber. "That's valuable in settings where students are bombarded by unpleasantness, tragedy, competition and overwhelming workloads."
By learning how to manage stress and anxiety, the future doctors also improve their patient interactions. "When doctors look worried, patients think it's about them," says Dr. Stuber. "But we might just be concerned about other patients, stressed about personal issues or have a stomach ache. We have to deliberately get ourselves present in the moment before we enter a patient's room, so we aren't carrying stress around in our bodies and on our faces."
Retreats and resources
Developing mindful awareness takes time, practice and commitment. Having explored this way of thinking in the curriculum, interested medical students can seek out additional resources and training through UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).
MARC offers classes, online guided meditations and free drop-in meditation sessions. It also hosts daylong or weekend-long retreats instructed by experienced practitioners like Gloria Kamler, a holistic educator and stress-relief expert who has facilitated mindful meditation for the past 20 years. In her recent daylong retreat — "Energize Your Practice" — she helped students cultivate mindful attention while directing them through basic activities such as sitting, walking, stretching and eating.
"One of my favorite things about this medical school is that we're on a campus and have a lot of resources," says Dr. Stuber. "MARC is one of them."
By Taylor Mallory Holland