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Mindfulness to combat the burnout pandemic

Mindfulness as a form of self-care has been shown to help manage stress and combat burnout caused by chronic unresolved stress

Burnout is a pandemic issue, and I am not talking about coronavirus. In the UK alone, burnout affects more than half of practising doctors (Locke, 2020), and vets have four times the UK national rate of suicide which is not merely because of the ease of access to euthanasia drugs (Mellanby, 2005). Suicide can be the result of burnout, which, in turn, is the result of chronic unresolved stress.

Suicide, burnout and chronic stress

Chronic unresolved stress is responsible for 60 percent of all NHS visits each year and accounts for 8 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in this country (Dobson et al., 2009). So, burnout is a problem, and veterinary surgeon burnout is a monumental one.

If an older, overweight male collapses in the street while clutching their chest, what do you think is most likely happening to them? The smoking gun is likely a heart attack. But how did you know? You know because you can recognise the external signs of a heart attack. It is life-threatening and, because of this, everyone knows what to do next.

Similarly, being able to recognise burnout as it develops in yourself and others is life-saving knowledge. It is important because if we cannot take care of ourselves and recognise these symptoms, then we cannot take care of anyone else.

Mindfulness vs burnout

Many of us have our own self-care practices; we know that if we eat healthily, exercise regularly and sleep for eight hours each night we can manage stress better. But a lot of us do that and still reach the point of burnout.

Study after study shows that mindfulness practices and living mindfully tend to be the overarching ingredients that are missing when you mismanage stress. Mindfulness has over 50 years of research showcasing how it can affect neuroplasticity and reverse the changes in the mind and body caused by chronic unresolved stress (Carmody et al., 2011).

The American Mindfulness Research Association is a great place to discover all of the high-quality research that has been done so far. The rest of this article will summarise a few of the outcomes of recent studies on three key areas: emotional, physical and mental health.

Emotional health

Mindfulness has been shown to enhance focus and attention so that you are better able to begin and complete tasks (Creem et al., 2018). Even children who practise mindfulness do better at school, and we are starting to see curricula that incorporate mindfulness becoming more prevalent in UK schools.

Mindfulness also helps you to regulate your emotions so that emotional triggers do not aggravate you as much. This also means that your autonomic nervous system is not so easily hyperactivated so life’s turbulence becomes more manageable day to day.

Mindfulness and meditation can also influence one’s compassion. One study was conducted on a group of people asking them to practise loving kindness meditation before they were shown pictures of strangers, while a second group did not practise this meditation before they were shown these pictures (Kok and Singer, 2016). The group that meditated beforehand attributed more positive qualities to those strangers than the group that did not meditate. So what does that tell you about compassion? Compassion is a perception-based skill; it can be learnt and it can be lost.

Physical health

In regards to the clinical outcomes of mindfulness research on physical health, studies have shown that:

  • Mindfulness reduces the risk of cardiovascular events and improves cardiovascular health (Nardi et al., 2020)
  • Mindfulness reduces chronic pain by as much as 60 percent, compared to opioids which reduce pain by only 15 to 30 percent (Loucks, 2014)
  • Mindfulness can enhance the immune system post-vaccination: a group of subjects that did mindfulness before receiving a flu vaccination mounted a more robust immune response than those who did not (Bonus et al., 2003)
  • Mindfulness helps healing: in patients who had psoriasis and were undergoing light therapy, a study showed that they healed four times faster when they did mindfulness during their therapy than patients who would just listen to relaxing music (Bernhard et al., 1998)

Mental health

It has been shown that mindfulness can be beneficial in the management of many mental health disorders, especially insomnia, anxiety and depression. Even in people who practised an eight-week intervention once without ever doing so again, studies could measure those positive changes three years down the line and still notice them.

Mindfulness can also slow down brain ageing. Long-term meditators in their fifties who practise mindfulness were seen to have brains that resemble those of 30-year-olds on MRI scans (Epel et al., 2009). Mindfulness also appears to slow down genetic ageing by reducing the activity of an enzyme which shortens the DNA with age (Epel et al., 2009).

Mindfulness mentality and change

Inside the brain, what you focus on expands.

We can look at your brain under an MRI scanner and discover whether you tend to live on the more depressive side of life or on the happier side of life. But the good news is that this mentality is not hard wired; your brain architecture changes with every one of your experiences.

So, maybe clinical research results in a well-respected, peer-reviewed publication will be the stimulus that starts you on your journey into mindfulness, or provides you with the boost you need to take your practice to the next level. That may then change your life long term: who knows? Nothing is permanent; everything changes, and that is OK.

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