Take-home message: Mindfulness can help physicians manage stress—and may be effective in thwarting burnout.
Burnout is epidemic in medicine. Ophthalmologists may not think of their specialty as being highly stressful, but 50% may show signs of burnout, according to a survey by the American Medical Association at the Mayo Clinic.
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“We all know the path to burnout,” said Jullia Rosdahl, MD, PhD. “Early on, I thought of medicine as a sprint. I just had to get through medical school. Then I just had to get through residency, then fellowship.
“Then I realized that medicine isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Dr. Rosdahl, assistant professor of ophthalmology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC. “And I needed to protect myself for the long term so I wouldn’t run out of steam.”
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Burnout begins with stress, Dr. Rosdahl said, and physician lives are filled with stress. The difference between coping with stress and burning out is a single word: resilience.
“Resilience is building strategies that help you cope with stress,” she said. “One of the ways to build resilience is through mindfulness. And mindfulness is an evidence-based practice that can improve your outlook and your ability to respond in stress. You can’t avoid stress, but mindfulness can help you cope with stress in productive ways.”
Dr. Rosdahl joined Duke Medicine’s in-house mindfulness program that was being developed when she finished training. At its core, mindfulness is simply paying attention to the moment and to your own reactions to situations. Mindfulness gives one the space to alter his or her own response to stresses.
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“One of the first steps was to teach us a few simple, breathing techniques,” she said. “I had never done any meditation and didn’t know that’s what we were learning.
“I was amazed at how much more power and positivity I had just by noticing my breathing and taking a mindful breath,” Dr. Rosdahl said. “When things got stressful, I could give myself space just by breathing. That’s a powerful tool.”