Mar 02, 2017
By Hilary Adams, Staff Writer
When it comes to heading off professional burnout, nearly all research yields the same advice: take time to decompress by focusing on something you enjoy. However, if what you enjoy is going to concerts or traveling, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rejuvenate while pursuing your passions on a daily basis, particularly if you spend most of your time in the clinic or lab. A daily mindfulness or meditation practice that you can do any time, anywhere, can help relieve stress and recharge your emotional and psychological batteries.
Cognitive benefits of meditation
While professional burnout is not the same as clinical anxiety or depression, it can manifest with similar symptoms: emotional detachment, physical and mental exhaustion, and a reduced sense of personal achievement. One way to combat burnout is to “restart” your brain by focusing on something other than negative thoughts, which can be achieved through the practice of mindfulness and meditation.
Practicing mindfulness—being aware of one’s surroundings and present in the moment—is somewhat easier said than done. Many of us tend to go on “autopilot” for routine tasks, which can make days and even weeks pass in a blur. Practicing mindfulness through meditation can help us become more physically and emotionally aware of the people and places we interact with. It presents an opportunity to appreciate the complex nuances of activities that might otherwise seem mundane and find a sense of renewed meaning for what we do every day.
Numerous studies conducted over the last 15 years have borne out the theory that practicing meditation on a regular basis can actually change the way your brain works—almost always for the better. Richard J. Davidson, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote an editorial for JAMA Psychiatry in which he concluded that a meta-analysis conducted by Kuyken et al. provided strong evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in reducing the risk of depressive relapse in patients with severe depression.1,2 A 2005 study examined the effects of a short-term stress management program—mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)—on health care professionals, the results of which suggested that an 8-week MBSR intervention “may be effective for reducing stress and increasing quality of life and self-compassion in health care professionals.”3
Given the general consensus surrounding meditation’s numerous cognitive benefits, the question isn’t “Why should I try it?”—it’s “How do I even get started? What do I do? And how do I find the time when I’m already so busy?”
While it’s true that meditation’s benefits increase the longer you stay in a meditative state, meditation can happen almost anywhere, for any amount of time. Any “down time” you have can be used for reflection and meditation. You can meditate on the bus or train to and from work, while brushing your teeth, or while waiting in line at the store. You just need to remember three key concepts: breathe, focus, repeat.
One of the most common questions asked by people who have never tried meditation before is very simply, “How do I meditate?” While there are virtually infinite ways for an individual to reach a meditative state, nearly all experts on mindful meditation recommend starting by focusing on your breathing. This forces you to redirect your thoughts away from whatever you may be consciously or unconsciously ruminating on and toward something that is neutral and reflexive.
Mindful meditation is most easily achieved when all external and internal distractions are silenced. Closing or mostly closing your eyes helps reduce visual distractions. Find a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, or put in your headphones and play some relaxing music. If you can use the same space or play the same music every time you sit down to meditate, you will be able to achieve a mindful meditative state more easily each time.
Once you feel relaxed, it may be helpful to focus on a word or phrase to redirect your thoughts. Find a neutral or positive word such as “breathe” or “calm” to think about. When you find your thoughts straying to your to-do list, or how much work you have left, go back to the word that you’ve chosen. This focus can help clear away the stress that has accumulated over the course of the day. The longer you can stay in this state of mindful meditation, the more relaxed and refreshed you will feel once you come out of it.
The key to effective meditation is practice, so it’s important to set aside time every day to do it. Even a few minutes can be valuable. If you have a hard time finding time during the day to meditate, try it while sitting on the edge of your bed before you go to sleep at night.
The goal of mindful meditation is not to achieve total meditative bliss the first time around; rather, it is a continuous exercise to quiet the racing or repetitive thoughts that can lead to stress and burnout.
Meditation and Mindfulness Resources
Still not sure how to start practicing mindfulness and meditation? In addition to the thousands of free meditation videos available through Youtube (just search “guided meditation”), check out:
- A free comprehensive meditation guide from The New York Times
- “The Meditation Podcast,” a popular free podcast hosted by Jesse and Jeane Stern, updated monthly
- A library of free guided meditations from clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach, as well as her eponymous podcast
- Davidson RJ. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73:547-8.
- Kuyken W, Warren FC, Taylor RS, et al. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73:565-74.
- Shapiro SL, Astin JA, Bishop SR, et al. International Journal of Stress Management. 2005;12:164-76.