Self-care now an official Physician’s Pledge – by Kathryn Choules

I remember receiving Kathryn’s piece on mindfulness when we first ran the #MindfulMay theme in 2017. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to share a contribution from someone with such a profound depth of understanding of mindfulness and was delighted that Kathryn contributed again this year. I love that she’s written about self-care for physicians and am looking forward to it being central to the practice of all health professionals. I hope you enjoy Kathryn’s perspective as much as I do!!

Amanda Griffiths – founder MHC.

Kathryn ChoulesDid you know that the World Medical Association recently updated its Physicians Pledge to include a pledge of self-care? Amongst the usual pledges (to be of service to humanity, to protect patient confidentiality and to have patient well-being the first consideration etc.), a new pledge has been added: 

“I WILL ATTEND TO my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard. 

This is an important recognition that in order to look after others well, all health professionals need to look after their own well-being. You know the analogy with the oxygen mask in the aeroplane. Fit your own first in order to be able to support others effectively. Mindfulness can play a vital role in achieving health professional well-being. Higher levels of mindfulness are associated with better physical and mental health outcomes in a wide variety of research studies. 

This year one of my delights has been to teach into a first-year medical course at Notre Dame University where the students are being taught specifically how to engage in self-care. Mindfulness is a key part of that course. Mindfulness, a mind training and awareness building process, over time supports us to be more comfortable with the stuff of life that can throw us off balance. One of the key messages I give is that mindfulness isn’t about escaping to a happy place but is rather about learning to deal with the reality of life – the good, the bad, the ugly. We only gain greater ease with the challenges of life by engaging with them with awareness, whenever they arise. Pausing and tuning in to our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations is a basic practice that over time supports greater ease with discomfort. This has to be one of the most useful capacities. Learning to move from an aversive reaction to a caring, grounded response is a key life skill that mindfulness facilitates.  

What are the scenarios or personal anecdotes of when you or (your students) became comfortable with the challenges of life through awareness? 

A major benefit of mindfulness practice for me is developing acceptance of the messiness of life. Acceptance is a very straightforward recognition of what is happening – of the reality of a situation. It can be accompanied by action but there will be times when acceptance is the end game too. Working with a group of people in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program brings me face to face with people’s suffering on a regular basis. Becoming more comfortable with the pain and suffering that is an inherent part of being a human being (i.e. accepting their pain and my discomfort) means that I am better able to stay present and open to another’s emotional difficulty rather than need to escape my discomfort. Often a caring presence is the most healing response. 

Do you have any tips on the simple ways health professionals can attend to their own health, and well-being? 

Get a good mindfulness teacher, do a serious mindfulness course, dedicate some time to mindfulness meditation, pause as often as you can during the day and ground yourself through the body – there are no quick fixes or magic pills. 

How do you personally take care of your health? 

I personally take care of my health by exercising daily, meditating daily, eating a predominantly plant-based diet, pausing and noticing the good things in life and naming them to myself (e.g. feeling gratitude as often as I can, appreciating the feeling of being touched by another’s kindness…), broadening perspective when it has narrowed around me, me, me… It is easy for me to take on too much so when I find myself getting caught up in the tasks I need to accomplish, I tell myself “I have time to care.” This connects me to my values and how I would like to be in the world. 

Kathryn Choules (PhD) is a researcher and certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts. She has been teaching mindfulness to healthcare professionals since 2014. She is the founder of Mind and Movement offering mindfulness programs in Western Australia: www.mindandmovement.com.au

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