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Meditation: the ancient practice with science-backed benefits

Meditation is a hot topic with deep roots, but sometimes it feels like it’s being pushed as a modern-day version of snake oil for what ails the spirit. Often touted as an antidote to burnout, many of us know that a meditation app won’t solve the systemic issues plaguing health care today, leading some physicians to be skeptical.

I was introduced to mindfulness meditation years ago while practicing yoga. Initially, making time to simply sit and be present wasn’t a priority for me. My interest grew when I realized that respected physicians and scientists, including Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Vivek Murthy, incorporate meditation into their daily lives.

Recently, researchers from various academic disciplines have been seriously investigating this ancient practice. They’re discovering meditation’s measurable benefits for mental well-being, memory, and even physical health. Meditation is a legitimate scientific inquiry area. A quick search on retrieves thousands of reports and peer-reviewed studies, mostly published in the past decade. Delving into the health benefits of meditation is like going down a fascinating, twisty-turny rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland.

Mindfulness meditation focuses on being present, slowing down thoughts, and observing without judgement or reactivity. These features make it particularly valuable for physicians. Whether or not you choose to meditate, you’re likely to get questions about it from patients, family, and colleagues. Here are three things physicians should know about meditation:

Meditation may enhance your skills as a physician. Research spanning a range of fields looks at meditation’s impact on neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. For physicians, the ability to focus on details, remain present for patients, and maintain equanimity in stressful situations is crucial. Meditation can help by improving attention, enhancing body awareness, regulating emotions, increasing memory capacity, boosting sleep quality, and improving cardiovascular health.

Bedtime may not be the best time to meditate. While meditation can improve sleep quality, it can increase brain arousal in the short term. Since meditation focuses the mind, this may result in heightened awareness. Therefore, it may be better to meditate at the start of the day. However, less focused forms of meditation can aid in falling asleep. Apps like Calm and Headspace offer such practices.

A five-minute daily meditation can have lasting benefits. Mornings are often best for meditation, but waking up 30 minutes early for it isn’t always feasible. Fortunately, a study found that just 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm in mental health professionals.

As with many things, meditation isn’t for everyone. In some cases, it can induce negativity or rumination, especially with sessions over 20 minutes. If you’re under a mental health professional’s care, consult them before starting. If meditation causes stress or agitation, it’s best to avoid it. However, for most, a momentary pause in the day can recenter and remind oneself of purpose and values.

Starting a meditation practice is straightforward. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to escape to an ashram or a tropical island. As a certified Mindfulness Coach, I often integrate mindfulness into my coaching. However, simpler options exist, such as a range of apps and websites offering meditations as short as one minute, many with free versions.

Once you begin, you might notice the benefits during the more pressured parts of your day. You may find yourself taking a deep breath or a brief pause before facing challenging patients or colleagues. You might feel more present with your patients and less reactive to stressful situations. While mindfulness meditation won’t heal the current state of health care, it may provide tools to weather the storm with self-compassion and steadfast presence.

Remember, meditation isn’t suitable for everyone. If it causes stress or agitation, consider avoiding it. Always consult a mental health professional before starting a meditation practice if you’re already under their care.

Sarah Samaan is a retired cardiologist and a Master Certified Physician Development Coach. She can be reached at Mindful Physician Coaching and LinkedIn. She is the author of DASH Diet for Dummies.

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