Physician Well-Being: Meditation and Mindfulness to Battle Burnout

Let’s face it: As a physician you have a multitude of responsibilities and concerns, including your career, your patients, your medical practice and your vulnerability to malpractice claims. This not only makes physician burnout a possibility, but a reality. Physician burnout is a global epidemic. This issue is non-discriminatory as it affects all physicians regardless of specialty or gender.

An effective strategy to address physician burnout is to recharge the body and the mind by stepping away from work and scheduling time for rest and relaxation.  As a physician, you are trained to take care of others. It is equally, if not more, important for you to engage in self-care practices to stay balanced and contribute to your own well-being.

What Is Physician Burnout?

Physician burnout is essentially a disorder of energy metabolism. The American Academy of Family Practitioners describes physician burnout as an “energy account.” Similar to a bank account, physicians can have a positive or negative balance of energy. They withdraw energy from their account for work and life and deposit energy back into their account during rest and relaxation. Burnout occurs when a physician carries a negative energy balance over time. This can be in the form of physical energy, emotional energy or spiritual energy. To maintain a positive balance, physicians must lower their stress levels and schedule time to rest!

Using Meditation to Combat Physician Burnout

There are many ways to reduce physician burnout and promote energy balance. Next, we will discuss a few types of meditation that can help physicians restore energy!

Transcendental Meditation. A recent study showed that transcendental meditation reduced physician burnout in the academic setting. Transcendental meditation is a simple technique proven to reduce stress. The technique was founded over 50 years ago by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It is recommended to learn the technique from a certified instructor prior to practicing on your own. Transcendental meditation involves sitting quietly for 20 minutes two times a day with your eyes closed.  During this time, the physician will silently repeat a word or sound, known as a mantra. Unlike other forms of meditation, transcendental meditation does not involve mindfulness or quieting of the mind. During this type of meditation, the normal thinking process is replaced by a pure state of consciousness. In turn, the mind becomes less active allowing the body to rest deeply. In addition to relieving stress, transcendental meditation has been known to reduce chronic pain and high blood pressure.  

Yoga Nidra. Another way to reduce stress is through Yoga Nidra. This practice, also known as yogic sleep, is a state of deep relaxation where the body and mind are at rest, but the consciousness is awake.  It is said that practicing one hour of Yoga Nidra provides the same benefits as four hours of sleep! Yoga Nidra can be practiced by anyone. No prior yoga experience is necessary. During this practice, participants will lie in a comfortable position with their eyes closed, following the voice of the instructor. Participants will set an intention, also known as a sankalpa, prior to the practice and mentally repeat their sankalpa three times. After completing a body scan and breath work, participants follow the instructor’s voice to experience sensations, such as hot and cold or heavy and light.  Next, the voice will guide participants through a scenario of visualizations at which time emotions or experiences from the subconscious may occur.  At the very end of the practice, participants return to the sankalpa and awake refreshed.

Mindfulness. One of the easiest ways to decrease stress is by incorporating simple mindfulness techniques into your routine. According to the American Association for Physician Leadership, “mindfulness is a way of remaining present while processing unfolding events and feelings in a compassionate and non-judgmental way.” Essentially, focus on what is happening in the moment as opposed to dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness techniques may help physicians who suffer from burnout by changing the way they act when faced with stressful situations.  According to the Annals of Family Medicine, physicians who practice mindfulness felt more empathetic towards their patients and enjoyed a more fulfilling life. There are numerous mindfulness techniques.  One of the easiest techniques to incorporate is focused breathing. This involves noticing the breath, such as a feeling the coolness of breath during inhalation and the warm of the breath during exhalation. Another mindfulness technique is one-to-one breathing. With this type of breathing exercise, the length of the inhalation and exhalation are equal. It is recommended to start with a four-count breath and increase the length of the breath when ready. One of the best ways to start your mindfulness journey is by incorporating a few minutes of breath work each day. When facing a stressful situation, pause and breathe before reacting!

Adding these techniques to your toolbox can help support your mental well-being, which is key to combatting physician burnout and maintaining a fulfilling career. For more information, check out these additional resources:

  • Click here for additional information or to locate a transcendental meditation instructor.
  • Visit your local yoga studio to find a Yoga Nidra class in your area. If a yoga studio does not interest you, Insight Timer offers Yoga Nidra, as well as mindfulness classes at no cost.
  • The¬†Medical Society of the State of New York¬†has created a Peer-to-Peer program for physicians experiencing burnout.