Articles

DR. ANDREW DEAN

WAIVER: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM. They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“Why should i need mindfulness, as an Ed Clinician?”

So the answer is, of course you don’t – if you see no value in it for you.

Mindfulness techniques do not change the system structures that create bed block, patient overcrowding or work-related stress, and to alter our emotional reactivity to events happening around us.

Techniques of mindfulness are like a counter-conditioning for our brain’s default patterns of emotional that we are always going to react in essentially the same way, every time. In other words, that we essentially don’t have much control over this, because the way we are is the way we are. 

Not so.

ACEM supports Wellness and has a network of Wellness Champions who are all working towards linking ED Clinicians with concepts of self-sustaining and resilient behaviours.

A component of the various elements of Wellness is mindfulness, which from my own and other’s experience can be incorporated into the busy life of a front-line ED clinician. You might be suprised (I was) at just how many of your colleagues are already on this path, utilising daily mindfulness practice to faciliate their effective clinical work.

So don’t take if from me, but you may want to explore some of the many mindfulness apps, or look at some scientific evidence – a good starting point are the following resources:

Treat: a free mindfulness app from the Alfred Hospital for critical care and emergency department staff. Free app for all IOS or Android devices.

Smiling Mind

Headspace

College and collegial Wellness resources

ACEM Wellness Week: August 15-21, 2021, 

WRaP EM

wrapem.org 

And for a look at the science of neuropsychology and how mindfulness works, A/Prof Craig Hassed (Monash Wellbeing) explains the evidence and science for the benefits of mindfulness in these two videos:

https://youtu.be/IsXxvPWd_k4

https://youtu.be/9O7vd2uGO0w

Many professional groups are working mindfulness into their routines for their key personnel, and emergency medicine should not be any different.  Burnout, early retirement and mental health problems are all too common in our ED colleagues.  This Wellness stuff is clearly very important, and I am convinced that we owe it to ourselves to at least examine what mindfulness is, and perhaps try some of the options available (most of them are completely free).

In the next article I will discuss how our brain reacts to stress, and how mindfulness changes this.  And yes, it is all scientifically proven, and yes, it does work.

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading this.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“I agree that I am stressed, but I can’t change that”

We all have default ways of reacting to stress and these “built in” patterns are regarded as fixed, or intrinsic, parts of our personality. 

“He is just like that; he can’t help it.  It is just a pity he is the Director!”.

We react emotionally and physiologically to stressful situations and people around us at work or home, and may be triggered to be annoyed, angry, resentful or to lose our sense of equilibrium and balance.  These emotional reactions may be externalised (so called “outbursts”), or kept within while we maintain a calm exterior to the world (I suppose you could call the internalised reaction an “inburst”).  Either pattern of reaction can be destructive, and can adversely affect our health as well as our relationships, and the ED “culture” in our workspaces.

Why do we accept so much pain, caused by this emotional reactivity?

These reaction patterns to stress are commonly regarded as being “hard wired”, a part of our personalities, or an inevitable consequence of our life experiences.  We repeat these often painful, recurring patterns of reactions to external events, and this can be incredibly exhausting and can also contribute to feelings of “burn-out”.

Mindfulness research tells us that none of us are as “hard wired” as we may think, and that our default reaction patterns can be changed with even relatively brief practice of mindfulness techniques.  Setting aside a few minutes each day starts this process.

It could be just by catching ourselves at the start of a familiar irritable feeling, and reminding ourselves that there is another way to see the situation that seems to be triggering us.  Taking a few slow breaths, and moving briefly away from other people if we can, creates a mental space for our mind to reset.

A bit like the methods we use in an ED resuscitation, when we recap, invite group inputs, and summarise how the patient is responding to our care.  These strategies are healthy.

 Starting your day with a few moments of mindfulness practice – keep it really simple, do the three slow consecutive breaths exercise, and envisaging your day going really well – will give you a new way of reacting to stress.  Or rather, a strategy for reacting less to stress than you otherwise might have previously. 

Keeping a discipline like this, even if only for a few conscious slow breaths, starts an internal process of change.  “Brain training” if you like.  It works for dogs, so why not brains?

“But I still don’t see the point of all of this..”

 And I would completely agree with you that it is not for everyone.  But with really diverse and unlikely groups – including primary school kids (seemingly everywhere, these days!), prisoners, US Air Force pilots and ex-criminal shipyard workers in Alaska – incorporating mindfulness into their daily workplace routines, there has to be something to it that is worthy of our consideration.  Why would they do it otherwise?

“So, does it actually help you?”

 I know that my own various roles in the ED and Hospital environment are dramatically enhanced by having the backdrop of daily mindfulness routines.  Hands down, no argument. Less stress, less conflict, less defensiveness, better health.  I could simply not do it all, without mindfulness.  Period. 

For me it is the beginning of the day, but particularly the end of the day when the world gets quiet.  Funny thing is, within the day, when we assume we will have no spaces for this stuff, there actually are many opportunities for brief mindful moments – waiting for coffee, walking to CT to get a verbal report, typing up notes – when we can recalibrate and do a mental “check in” on ourselves.  A quick “maintenance check” on the hard drive perhaps…

Next time let’s get into specifics and away from the general discussion about benefits.  Because unless you actually try it, it is just theory…

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading this.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“Why would I benefit from mindfulness?”

If you are like me, an average busy ED shift gets fairly stressful by about 4 hours into it, with ambulances ramping and bed block – you know the drill.  By this stage on those days, I am feeling a bit like a tightly wound metal spring.  Tight muscles everywhere and just stress.

Anxious also because wards won’t take patients or clean their beds fast enough for the ED’s needs. Sounds familiar?

At the end of these shifts it can take a full 24 hours away from ED to recover our sense of calm.  My partner says that it takes me 2 days sometimes to become normal again.  I treat everything at home as a list of urgent tasks, all needing to be achieved at ED pace.

It doesn’t need to be like this.  What if there was a way to reduce the chronic and acute tension that we accumulate in our medical lifestyle all too easily?

“OK, enough words, how do I start this?”

 Mindfulness is essentially about speeding up our conscious transitions from stress to calm.  It is also about becoming aware of our own level of alertness and anxiety, in any moment.

So what are you thinking about NOW?  Lists, tasks, maybe some negative self-talk about a case that did not go so well, or….

If you can, do this exercise when/where it is safe enough to do so uninterrupted for a few minutes…say 5 minutes.  Yes, of course, this stuff works better if you can put aside 10 minutes (or more) twice a day, but start small.  Baby steps.

Take a slow, deliberate breath IN.   Feel it flooding through you with new oxygen all around your body.  Let the breath out.  As you take another slow breath, try and exclude any other thoughts except the awareness of breathing.  Let the breath out.  Concentrate on a third breath – really observe it and how the air movement feels in your airway, or your respiratory muscles perhaps.  Let that one go also.

Do you feel different, even after only three mindful breaths?  In mindfulness language, a “mindful breath” is a studied breath. Less tense? Less tightly wound?

So now go back to your “stress” default mode, deliberately filling your mind with all sorts of random thoughts, lists and emotions.  Study how you are feeling now, noting the difference from the state you reached after three conscious breaths.

Now, do 5 mindful breaths.   In and out.  Study the feeling of the breaths.  Don’t try and force them or achieve any state of mind.  But do try and focus just on the breaths, and count them.  Go for ten if you are getting really confident.  It is really hard at first!

But notice the difference between the “pre-breathing you”, and the “post-breathing you”. 

The message you are giving your body and your emotions is that you are taking back control.

So back to the lists and worries again. Go for it, feel stressed.

And now do the 5 breaths, and focus like anything on the breathing.  Yep, it gets quicker doesn’t it?  Your speed of transition improves quickly, especially if you practise every day.

Imagine if you could practise every day for 5 or 10 minutes and maintain it.  And even a 20-30 minute practice each week? 

And is it that much of a stretch to grab a few moments WITHIN the work day to practise breathing mindfully?  And to identify moments where you need to do it, for example after a challenging phone call, or a meeting with a tired relative who can’t visit their mother in ED due to COVID rules?  And what if you set aside a few quiet seconds before that phone call, to transition from stress to calm before taking on the phone call, or meeting?

We talk about teaching-on-the-run, so why not mindful-on-the-run?

And the kicker is that as you get some runs on the board, regularly, with mindfulness practise sessions, you will see that your default mode starts to shift from being stressed mostly, to being calm mostly.  Things won’t get you wound up.  Triggers stop triggering.

I know it works.  But don’t take it from me. Try it.  It is only breathing.  Not that hard.

Next time we’ll talk about what changes anatomically in your brain as you develop your own  mindfulness practice.

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading this.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“So where is the science to prove the value of mindfulness?”

In short, there is prolific scientific evidence in the research literature of neuropsychology, and a whole interdisciplinary field of meditation science called “Contemplative Neuroscience”.  The nexus between modern clinical psychology and both Eastern and Western contemplative traditions, continues to generate large amounts of good quality peer-reviewed data. 

Here is one of many..

(see also the links in Article 1 above, especially those of Dr Craig Hassed at Monash University)

https://www.pacificneuroscienceinstitute.org/blog/brain-health/meditation-mindfulness-for-stress-reduction/

[and two quotes below are from the above website..]

 

“Mindfulness training is a widely accessible activity which is
deeply rooted in centuries old Buddhist meditation practices. Scientific
inquiry into understanding the neuroscience behind this ancient spiritual
practice, specifically, “Contemplative Neuroscience” has applied leading-edge
neuroimaging techniques showing that regular, mindfulness meditation practice
increases aspects of brain function and structure that tend to decline with normal
aging.

This includes areas in
the prefrontal cortex, responsible for organization, planning, and attention,
as well as the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory, all of which
tend to decline in size and activity over time.

Additional supporting
research shows that mindfulness meditation strengthens brain activity and
connectivity, psychological well-being, as well as brain volume. These data
indicate that meditation can counteract memory issues and general cognitive
decline associated with Mild Cognitive
Impairment
 and dementia.”

 

 

“Combating regular stress is critical to healthy
aging. When not regulated or controlled, stress can contribute to inflammation,
[exacerbate] neurodegenerative factors, [cause] excess cortisol secretion, and
lead to an overall increase in risk for dementia and cognitive decline.

Meditation
can stave off the negative effects of stress, and increase neuroprotective
compounds in the brain, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and [thereby
assist in] boosting cognitive reserve.

A
2014 review paper found that amongst 47 well-conducted studies of structured
meditation training, short meditation programs of about 8 weeks lead to
reduced anxiety, depression, stress, pain and improved quality of
life.”

The effects of meditation/mindfulness are
related to regularity of practice, and as we discussed in earlier articles this
practice can be either as scheduled sessions, or ‘on the run’.  Benefits are achieved through both.

 Intuitively, it makes sense to schedule in
a daily or even twice daily practice session of mindfulness.
 

 Scheduling these sessions is also a
statement of how much we value our own mental health, and our own inner growth
and development.
  We are important.   We are not just FACEMs, or clinicians, or
medical students, or spouses or partners.
 
And the evidence suggests that our function in all these other roles
will be enhanced as we incorporate mindfulness into our lives.

 So the anatomical changes from mindfulness
are related to a diminishing emotional reactivity to stress – the hippocampal
nucleus actually shrinks in size on MRI scans of regular meditators – which is
another way of saying that we are less likely to operate in fight or flight
mode when confronted by situations or people that previously would have
triggered this reaction in us.
  Our brain
no longer needs this basal reactive functionality so the nucleus regresses
anatomically and physiologically.

 Further, our ability to think and react
calmly in such situations is enhanced – the prefrontal cortex thickness
progressively hypertrophies
  – which is
our calm, executive functioning centre associated with creative and reasoned
solutions to events.

 Ideal meditation times are something to
experiment with yourself; early mornings may work well for some, but I prefer
evening.
  Try and make it nearly every
day; if you forget to meditate for a few days, the level reached has to be
regained again, certainly in the early stages of practice.
  

What will also happen with regular practice is that you will catch yourself starting to react in your previous default mode, identify this, and be able to quickly terminate that reaction, and choose to react mindfully instead.  Less irritability, less anger, less fear.  And this “reset process” gets quicker and automatic, with practice.

 

Research has shown that becoming more aware of your mental states increases activity in the prefrontal cortex and helps you better regulate your emotional center in your brain (the amygdala). Additionally, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain) works in concert with posterior regions in the brain to help seasoned meditators strengthen the brain network that allows us to pay attention to a task at hand and ignore distractions.

 

 Above quotes are from https://www.pacificneuroscienceinstitute.org/blog/brain-health/meditation-mindfulness-for-stress-reduction/

Accessed 9th September, 2021

 

“Decision time”

The first step of this journey is that we must decide whether or not mindfulness and meditation intuitively appeal to us.  If not, the answer is to do something else for your mental health; exercise, a hobby or sport, for example. 

But at some time, and it might as well be now, we will all come to this area of our own development, especially once we see how it supports and enhances our lives.  But the timing is up to you. 

Commonly, the impetus to start this learning curve about mindfulness may be a health or emotional crisis, when someone has a realisation that they just don’t have their own answers any more.  We have probably all talked with patients like that in our ED work, or perhaps friends, or even faced a crisis in our own lives.  For some of us, there is no one specific event or crisis, but the motivation is plain and simple curiosity, perhaps to see “how far the rabbit hole goes”…with acknowledgements to Morpheus, in the film The Matrix

So, let’s take the red pill, but as we know from our work as ED clinicians, the problem with medication, and meditation, is non-compliance.

“So why do people start meditation practice, and then stop?”

The value, I hope, of an ED Physician writing about mindfulness / meditation strategies for busy people is that I know from experience that the transition from day-to-day brain activity, to mindful and meditative states, is particularly hard for us.  So, if we don’t see early results with our first few sessions, we may give up the practice altogether.  But it is especially important to persist, and I believe the strategies offered in these articles will help make the process quicker for you as it has for me.  I mainly learnt through trial and error, stumbling around for ages, until significant breakthroughs occurred.

My own experience is that the transition process between these states (‘day-to-day’ vs ‘meditation/mindful’ states) is initially quite jarring and challenging.  I think that for us ‘Type A’ types, our brain actively resists the process. 

“I think that for us ‘Type A’ types, our brain actively resists the process”

But if we work in persistently and assertively perfecting that transition zone, we can break it down to a smooth process, and then it suddenly starts to make sense.  It just takes repetition, like the procedural skillsets we develop and eventually master in critical care medicine.

When we teach junior staff a skill, we break it down into sections.  Wash your hands, put on PPE, open up the sterile field etc.  Meditation is the same, in the early stages.  After a certain level, the intellectual constructs lose traction, and an increasingly experiential subjective paradigm takes over.  We will each have our own unique experiences, and some common ones of course, as we progress into the vast world of meditation and mindfulness.

But the early rocky stages present common difficulties to most of us, so let’s break it down and lay out a roadmap to make it achievable for ED clinicians. 

So, whether your mindfulness practice period is 1 minute long, or 20 minutes long, the transition zone can still be tricky from normal day-to-day consciousness to the expanded, slow thought patterns of meditation.

Our thinking slows as we do the breathing exercise, or a body scan, and then WHAMMO we are back thinking about shopping lists, and concerns about the future, or that patient with the X-Ray finding that we did not see.

At this point, we may feel like a complete failure at mindfulness.  But it is not so.

“At this point, we may feel like a complete failure at mindfulness. 

But it is not so”.

All that is happening is that our brain is resisting being at peace, like a cornered tiger.  Calm and peace are not natural states for a lot of us. 

But the brain can be trained.  There is a heap of good scientific evidence to support this.

The secret to transition zones into meditation levels of consciousness is to compare meditation to a smorgasbord meal, where you have a range of options on display from which you create a delectable meal.  Not really the same as the usual snatched lunch break in the ED!

“And once you have done it one time, you will speed up the process with repetition.  Guaranteed.”

And the real secret to the transition zone is to have all of the options on hand, and quickly change between them if one does not seem to be working for you.  Our brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so if we fill the bandwidth with transition zone techniques, our brain faces a real challenge in dishing up the distractions, the lists, the worries.

In this way, as we “flood our brains” with a range of transition zone techniques, we can recall a line used by the Daleks in Doctor Who, “resistance is useless”.  We break through to spacious meditation consciousness.  And once you have done it one time, you will speed up the process with repetition.  Guaranteed.  You will also learn what approach works best for you.

All of the great meditation techniques were developed by people who understood the crazy ways in which our brains operate, and think.   The various strategies all have the same outcome, to help us centre, and stop the mental chatter of our minds.

Next time, we will take a deeper dive into the transition techniques, namely breathing techniques, mantra meditation, body scanning and visualisation.  They are not of value in themselves; they just help us transition through the messy initial stages of meditation to a place we really, really want to reach.

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading this.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

Defining the terms”

So last time we ended up talking about the main difficulty in all of this mindfulness meditation caper as being the first stages of transitioning away from the frenetic day-to-day thinking, into the quieter, spacious thinking of mindfulness or meditation.

But we need some definitions, because using these two terms mindfulness and meditation together is confusing.  For me, too.

Mindfulness has many definitions.  Dr John Kabat-Zinn has been instrumental in launching mindfulness in the West; he correctly realised that making these techniques approachable in a modern setting required an apparent separation of the study and techniques of mindfulness from their historical background; in this case, from the Buddhist traditions of meditation that are over two thousand years old. 

The term mindfulness describes the conscious development of self-awareness and observation of one’s surroundings, in the present moment.  There are many techniques. 

Meditation is more a descriptor of the process and methods by which we can enter different levels of consciousness – apart from waking and sleep.  There are many techniques and ‘languages’ here also.

Meditation as an idea is less approachable perhaps for our busy minds, whereas mindfulness may be a more accepted term in the Western world.

“But does it really matter?”

I respectfully suggest that it really doesn’t matter which term we choose.  The overlaps are so great, and the techniques are so similar.

We need to keep all of this terminology as simple and credible as possible. 

“So, what’s this transition stuff he is talking about?”

As a launching idea, the people who developed the techniques of mindfulness and meditation really knew what they were doing; they understood how hard it is for our minds to get though the early stages of learning this.  Perhaps like training a race horse, or a puppy, or an intern in the ED.

We are so used to noise and interruptions and distractibility, and of course all of the emotional reactivity that goes along with having a partly trained mind.  We think of ourselves as being disciplined in some ways, but in terms of the mind itself our thinking is kind of all over the place for huge parts of our days.

Sitting down for the first few times and trying to relax or meditate usually fails spectacularly.  Some lucky individuals immediately have profound experiences when they learn to meditate, but for most of us, it requires regular practice with plateaus and some accelerated periods of growth.

To help us pull back on track, as we sit and meditate, there are tricks, and by understanding  a few of these at a cognitive level we can use several, if our mind is wandering.  Everybody gets distracted in meditation.  I will put some diagrams into subsequent articles to explain that this does not matter.

“I remember The Beatles, don’t you?”

One example is mantra meditation  which is used in Transcendental Meditation ™, made popular by the Beatles as they too explored new horizons in their early adulthood.  And, perhaps, some pharmacology sessions of a rather different nature to the usual ED Registrar tutorials.

A mantra is a word, or a series of words, that the meditator repeats.  When distracting thoughts come, as of course they will, the person tries to remember to re-start the rhythmic repeating of the mantra, perhaps linking the mantra to an in-breath, or to the out-breath.  Mantras in TM™ are old Indian or Sanskrit words, but any word works.  It could be shoelace or defib repeated quietly, and the effect would still occur.  Others use words with an emotional resonance, such as love, or stillness.  I find it powerful to quietly repeat something like thankyou, which brings in one of the values of mindfulness, which is gratitude.  But more on that in a later article.

Mantra meditation is certainly successful as a technique of transitioning.  This success is not because of the word or words chosen, but because of the repetitive nature of repeating the inner word sequence.  Our mind becomes slowly but steadily prised off its rock, despite its determination to hold on.  People use rosary beads, or tap on a table with a small glass at a certain speed, to effect the transition.  Repeated lines of prayer have the same meditative effect, and these have been used for aeons in religious meditation and prayer practice.

So, try using mantras.  Make up your own.  Finding a word that is sacred to you really helps with the whole mindfulness and meditation journey; a dedication to yourself is an essential element.  You will likely ‘chop and change’ a lot as you explore what works and what does not, and that is all very healthy.

Next, we have some of the mindfulness body scan  techniques, where you sit with eyes closed – or open, it does not matter – and sequentially start somewhere in your body and just observe physical sensations such as weight, muscle tension, temperature, air movement through the respiratory tract etc. 

This is similar to the many breathing techniques, where we focus on the sensation of air passing in and out of our nostrils, or throat, or the expansion of the abdominal and chest area with respiration.

These have developed as transition techniques because we simply have to breathe, so the stimulus is there to pull our mind away from “busy thoughts” to something calmer.  And likewise there is nothing particularly special about the body scan mindfulness techniques, other than the awareness being easily available from the physical sensory inputs we receive as we sit down in a chair.

They are just techniques of distraction, to help us transition.  Practising all of these a few times enables us to use any or all of these, while we ‘wrestle the tiger of distractibility’ in the early stages of learning how to meditate.

“It all sounds pretty hard”. 

But it is just repetition.  Calm non-judgmental repetition.  And we don’t listen to negative self-thoughts, such as “I can’t do this”.  Just repetition.

Depending on how “wired” we are, the initial practise sessions may be as brief as a few minutes.  With time, sessions of 5 or 10 minutes may not be intimidating. 

And as the Oracle in the Matrix films almost said, what really ‘fries our noodle’ with meditation is that the mind gets used to the amazing feeling from mindfulness sessions, and about the same time each day and often in between times, our mind urges us to meditate.  If you can escape from your day for even a few minutes to respond to these inner signals, and sit quietly and mindfully, you should do so.

“So what’s coming next?”

Next time, we will look at other techniques of transition, including the use of music, metronomes, guided meditations, flashing light devices and visualisation.  It all sounds a bit complicated, but the good news is that once we master transition to meditative states, it does get easier.  The focus on the transition zone is really important.

Take care of yourself and thanks for reading this.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“It’s all in your imagination”

The “meditation industry”

The transition into meditation is the hardest part for all of us at first, and because of this, a whole “meditation industry” of various types of meditation aids, devices, books and music has arisen to help us out.  And, no doubt, to create commercial opportunities for the creators.  In the interests of transparency, I must declare myself as a participant in this, having written a book on the topic.

Once we have practised enough transitions from waking state to meditation state, we begin to build up our own library of ‘cues’ about our own individual transition process.  And then, we can tune into those cues – or lack of them if we are a bit “scrambled” – and by using our own biofeedback, we can “nut it out” for ourselves.  There is a bit of stumbling around in the dark for a while, but persist, because the fog clears, and the whole thing then starts to motor along quite nicely.

Once we have experienced what it feels like we can steer the same route again when we have our next practice.  Navigating by feelings sounds so corny, but that is how it seems to work.

“I don’t really know why mindfulness has to be so difficult to achieve..”

I don’t really know why mindfulness has to be so difficult for us to achieve in our fast-moving lives, but it seems to be the case.  At first.  But with repetition and trial and error we learn about our own inner signals  of what the different states feel like.  Let’s use an example.

What’s your favourite relaxation / holiday activity?  What is your absolute best experience you have ever had doing that?  What did it feel like when you were completely “in the zone” during that activity?

Now do a simple three mindful breaths exercise, and re-capture that “zone” feeling, focussing really hard on recalling the feeling.  You will probably notice after a few seconds that a part of you has “gone there” into that feeling, and your physiology may be shaping itself to exactly how it was, when you were undertaking that activity.  Breathe for a minute and explore that feeling of whatever that great moment was for you.  Then, slowly come back to now.

“I have just tricked you into doing your first visualisation..”

I have just tricked you into doing your first visualisation, or maybe not your first for many of you.  Imagery creates a physiological response.  And the meditation industry realises this, with the proliferation of guided meditations, to music backing tracks often.  These aids help us to conjure a visualisation, with the brain falling into line, slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing and letting muscle tension go.  And all because of the induced imagination imagery within the visualisation.

So, we can rely on an external trigger for visualisation, like someone else’s voice telling us what to imagine, or we can do it for ourselves.

“Imagination came easily to us as children..”

Imagination came easily to us as children, as we delved into play and inventing stories effortlessly.

But, with the seriousness of school, and even more so, of medical school, it was easy for us to become unimaginative.  But we can build up this shrunken muscle with repetitions, just as we do in the gym with all of those biceps curls (well, this is me imagining here!).

Imagination and visualisation are certainly powerful in meditation practice, but as with Rome, meditation was certainly not built in a day (with only a few sessions before giving up), and there are many roads (techniques) which lead to the same destination.

Having a few techniques ‘dusted off’ for meditation transition is a bit like knowing a few sedation drug combinations for use in the ED.  If one doesn’t work, you just pivot to another technique.

And the repetition is reinforced further by using other aids such as (1) same time of day for mindfulness practice, (2) same chair or room in the house, (3) same simple dedication and preparation for the session, and (4) allocating the same amount of time each time you practise.  The brain gets the message that you are serious, and it complies.

”The brain gets the message that you are serious, and it complies”

 The exciting reinforcement of successful transition achievement comes when we experience our first cool meditation experience.  A completely new and different level of consciousness, which feels just great for those moments, and it was all our own work.

And while it is not the aim of mindfulness to clock up “experiences” per se, travelling through the levels of meditation gives us encouragement that we actually can be successful at transitioning into these states using our own reproducible, and ever quicker, methodology.

“What about the biofeedback headsets and glasses?”

As I said above, all of these tools support our entry into transition, and are useful.  But, thankfully, we can quickly go beyond the need to use these once we start to really build up our inner list of “index cards” about how each stage of mindfulness feels.  We write our own map.

So, you may have bought a Muse, or a pair of Deepak Chopra flashing light glasses, as I did, but I don’t use them now because I just don’t need to.  And you won’t either, and the music player will probably stay switched off once you really understand transition, your style.

“Touching on the infinite”

The haunting sound of a shakuhachi flute conjures up images of samurai warriors training, and Zen Buddhist monks meditating, in the forests or snow on a Japanese mountainside… Some sounds just have a magical ability, in most of us, to transport us to another level of “in the zone” awareness.  Some call this “touching on the infinite” within us.

 As I said, there are many roads, along this very special journey  – which is, among other things, about re-establishing your inner calm and balance – despite the noise going on all around you.

Thanks for reading this, and take care of yourself.

Next time we will look at the idea of “signal to noise” and some concepts for how we can better focus on the real signal, and trim out the distracting noise.  Mindfulness comes into its own in busy and messy ED situations, and can reduce stress levels and burn-out.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“Signal to Noise”

An early compelling outcome from regular practice of mindfulness or meditation, call it whatever you prefer, is that we begin to sense that we have an unexpected executive capability to control the whole cacophony of our thoughts and emotions.  By and large, our constant firing of neural impulses is shaped by our past.  Mindfulness reawakens a dim memory that we can affect the present, and that it doesn’t just randomly happen to us.

“Mindfulness reawakens a dim memory that we can affect the present, and that it doesn’t just randomly happen to us.”

The influences that shape our average brain activity include such predictable culprits as our childhood experiences, the emotional patterns of our early family life during our formative years, a few disasters or momentous events along the way, and of course the daily conditioning of the people we live or work with – they influence our reaction patterns simply because we spend time with them.  So, our family or friends are enormously influential on how we react to events, and how we instinctively dive down emotional rabbit holes, positive or negative, when an event or “trigger” happens to us. 

In audio technical talk, there is a term called “signal to noise ratio” which refers to the amount of fuzzy static that disrupts a clear signal.  Peter Gabriel described it in his brilliant song called “Signal to Noise”, from which these following lines come:

All the while the world is turning to noise
Oh, the more that it’s surrounding us
The more that it destroys
Turn up the signal – wipe out the noise!

So much noise, so much emotional reaction.  There is a societal disapproval, certainly a mainstream media disapproval, of calmness, of quiet reflection, of equanimity amidst the noise and haste of “Desiderata” fame. 

And, the rest of the opening stanza in Desiderata reads: Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

It is surprising how large an obstacle this fundamental belief seems to be: that we can actually take control back from the maelstrom of emotional reactions that forms the majority of our waking thoughts.  We can become quiet.  We can return to calm clarity.

“We can become quiet.  We can return to calm clarity”

The other element in that quote is the idea of going placidly (calmly) amidst the noise and haste.  Not escaping, not running away from our lives, but learning how to (1) reliably reach calmness in ourselves, using mindfulness or meditation techniques, and then (2) going right back out into the fray, moving calmly amidst day-to-day events that hitherto would have ‘triggered’ us emotionally.  Our effectiveness now is enhanced, because our inner world is calmer; we can quietly hear the ‘signal’ from our intuition about the right thing to say, or do, in any situation.  And, the ‘noise’ is no longer dominating our awareness and dragging us along with it.

“Fine words, but…”

Part of the effect of watching our breathing, scanning our body and muscles, in the mindfulness exercises, is that we build a type of early warning radar for detecting ‘imbalance’.   When we recognise that we are tensing up, we are then more likely to immediately do the thing that restores us to balance.  The mindfulness solutions to stress in any moment are not complex.  By practising regularly, both in ‘scheduled’ sessions of mindfulness, and in ‘mindfulness on the run’ moments at work or during our other daily activities, we build the reflex ever stronger.  This stuff becomes a mostly automatic response to situations that previously would have us reacting with anger, irritation, anxiety or even reactive depression.

“Let’s practice this mindfulness again …”

Start with a familiar image…

It has been a massive day at work, with over-capacity waiting rooms, and bed-block stretching nerves and energy levels.  It is finally ‘go home time’, and you change out of PPE into civilian clothes, and make your way to the staff car park.  A busy home with all the issues of the day awaits you, and you are feeling like an over-tightened spring already. 

As you sit in your car, quite safely in the car park, let’s do a “reset” mindfulness exercise, a ‘time out’ just for you, before you drive home…

Close your eyes or keep them open if you like, and just stare at something and let your eyes rest from the constant movement of the shift in the ED.  Keep all your muscles still. 

 

Follow your breath. 

Breathe in, then out. 

No need to force it; the smoothing and slowing of breathing happens automatically if we let it.

Just watch your breath, in a detached kind of way,

as if you are standing in the shallows at the beach watching waves rolling in.

With each breath out release some aspect of the winding of your inner ‘spring’.  Perhaps identify a list of the day’s stresses, and work through the list as you breathe slowly.

Let them go.

 Feel yourself moving towards the ‘calm you’, increment by increment, with each breath.

Breathe out some tension from shoulders, or jaw muscles perhaps, or let your tension headache move out and away, with the breathing pattern.

 If you get distracted, don’t worry; just recognise this, and simply recommence the pattern. 

Once you have done a few minutes of this, give yourself a break and just have some unscripted mindfulness time, not trying to focus on or do anything, and simply enjoy the ‘unwound’ feeling that you have just created.

 Perhaps take 5 more minutes, or even 10 minutes if you feel comfortable, then ease your mind back into the mundane world of carparks and commuting, and another normal evening at home with your loved ones…

 But you have changed, and you will go home different, with a new, mindful element awakened in you as you engage with the evening.

 Thanks for reading this, and take care of yourself.

Next time we will look at mindfulness applied in the workplace, with some examples, and go over the concepts about how the hurdles to mindfulness are essentially transition zone problems, and the strategies are simple – if only we would remember to practise

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

“Waiting to arise”

“Mindfulness is not just about you

To summarise the story so far, mindfulness and meditation are tools that help us to

  • react less to triggers,
  • be calmer,
  • relate better to others
  • develop a clearer sense of who we are, and our role here.

Popular mindfulness and meditation books and self-help courses emphasise these as benefits to the individual, but few contextualise mindfulness in its greater function, which is to equip us to be stronger and more effective in helping others, and through providing such help we of course assist ourselves.  The weary world needs your strength, and mine.

In other words, mindfulness has a social function, a contribution to those around us.

How does this work, in particular, in relation to hospitals or the ED?

“What’s he talking about? A mindful workplace?”

We intuitively know that colleagues radiate an energy when they enter a meeting, or a room in the workplace, or any room for that matter.  Stay with me on this.  Most people who are in a reasonable level of balance emit a neutral kind of energy, and we are hardly aware of that.  Hopefully we can do even better than that, and radiate a really positive energy to our colleagues and patients.

But some individuals who have significant antisocial tendencies will enter a room and the other people in the room may likely feel unease or discomfort.  The extreme form of this would be someone who is drug affected from amphetamines – they create a massive challenge (let alone the physical risk) for the ED staff caring for them, just because of the pattern of energy that radiates from a drug affected person.  Another example is the frustrated or aggressive patient or relative who is reacting against the delays to treatment in a typical overcrowded ED.  We feel their bristling and perhaps even threatening energy, and to be effective we need to be extra mindful of this in the way we communicate with them, in our verbal de-escalation efforts.

 

“..emit a mindful energy of care..”

Mindfulness helps us to create the opposite situation within ourselves, a calm centre, an eye of the hurricane if you like, and we can then be emitters of a mindful energy of care, empathy and compassion in the midst of a noisy and challenging workplace.  This is the inner workspace from which highly creative and effective interactions with other people arise.  I will come back to this again, the idea of a mindful parallel inner narrative.

In other words, we first need to create or access a mindful workplace internally in ourselves, and then effective communication just happens.  We say and do the right thing.  Having said this, in escalating situations with aggressive behaviour, staff and patient safety still remain paramount, including the use of physical or pharmacological restraints as needed.

The link to CommLabs @ LITFL.com

I have just discovered the excellent CommLabs posts by Dr Hayden Richards on LITFL.com, which address this whole area of emotionally intelligent communication, in the midst of challenging ED situations.  These skillsets could certainly be described as mindful communication. I recommend watching Hayden’s CommLabs articles, and his YouTube videos on expert interpersonal communication.  The lessons apply generally, not just in medicine or the ED.

So, of course, you’ve guessed that the topic today is ED culture, and awakening ourselves to the powerful contributions that we can make to culture, as mindful emergency medicine professionals.  Every staff member is included in this, not just the FACEM or the medical team.

“Emulate the best, not the worst”

I would not be the only teacher of trainees and students in the ED who says to them: “follow the example of the best doctor you can identify, because they will teach you what you need”. 

Of course, we need technical skills champions in the ED, who are expert in the cognitive and procedural skillsets, but also we need champions in the non-technical skills of communication and great leadership – and we need champions in mindfulness.  Every ED or workplace needs such role models of how it is really done well. A good workplace culture grows into good workplace health, and is the result of constant nurturing.

And as we know from our children, or trainees at work, we are measured on what we do, rather than what we say.  From here on, as you start your own mindfulness journeys, there are no holidays.  Every conversation matters, every person you deal with.   And do students of mindfulness sometimes get it wrong, and revisit conflict and get into occasional arguments?  Of course, but our overall default state moves towards reduction in conflict and harm.

 The “values” of mindfulness

Hospitals and many companies have mission statements, values statements and the like which hopefully translate into the level of service they provide to customers, or in our case, our patients.

It does not always work.

Some of us will have roles in administration, to try and optimise policy and obtain enough staffing and resources to support the “front line” team, as they endeavour to deliver on the values of care.

Others of us just work in the front line.  Regardless, each individual in the hospital has a role to play in convincingly delivering on the hospital’s values.  

The values that enrich our workplace are things like

  • patience
  • gratitude
  • appreciation
  • respect
  • being attentive in the moment

We can’t “do mindfulness” for ourselves, and not try to engage with our fellow humans in a mindful way.  Any inconsistency in this simply cannot be sustained.   Mindfulness is all about our dealings with others; it is a binary gift that must be given away to be received. 

The idea that we can separate out the elements of our lives (work, family,..) and have acceptable different behavioural frameworks for each (“s/he is a bully at work, but lovely to her/his family at home”) makes no sense, and as we explore mindfulness such dichotomies become glaringly apparent, and in need of resolution.

And this brings us toward the true mission statement for you, for me, for all of us.  We can use the tools of mindfulness and meditation to reshape ourselves, to bring health and joy not only to ourselves, but also to all of those other people in the spaces we inhabit, in our day to day lives.

“The two triggers for getting started in mindfulness are pain, or curiosity”

We will get back to the mechanics of mindfulness in the middle of our working days in the coming blogs, and then look at the longer practise sessions of meditation in more detail.

And even though I wrote in the early Mindfulness articles (for example in #1) about how this mindfulness caper may not be for you, in a way, it always is. For all of us.  The only variable in this that we can control is the timing. 

At some stage, you and I and every person will have to work all of these concepts into our/their lives.  The two triggers for getting started in mindfulness are either pain, or curiosity.  The concepts of elective surgery and emergency surgery are well known in healthcare.  Mindfulness is similar.  My question is, why leave mindfulness until the wheels fall off the cart?  Why not start now?

“…all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise”

And so we come to the close for this week, with another line from a song, this time from the song Blackbird, by the Beatles.  You indeed are a unique and special part of all things, and all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Thanks for reading this, and take care of yourself.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

The mechanics of mindfulness

Mindfulness is like cookery

The time that we allocate to activities influences the outcome, and our skill level in that activity.  This applies to cookery, and to our domain specific skills such as IV cannulation. 

Mindfulness is no different; skimming through a mindfulness book in a bookshop is not the same as setting aside 10 minutes a day, and remembering to create brief mindfulness sessions “on the run” while at work, or on the train commuting, or playing with your kids at a park. 

So, in an average work day, let’s identify the moments we could use to help build mindfulness.

Mindful in the morning rush

Scheduling in slightly earlier rising, when the house is at peace, creates a chance to do something specifically mindful, whether it is a proper meditation session, or slow walking, or tai chi or yoga.  Animals and gardens are ideal mindfulness activities, but walking a boisterous young puppy perhaps not as ideal..

Even just a few minutes of deliberate slow walking, with some basic breathing focus, is like opening a door in our mind.  You would probably know of ‘walking a labyrinth’, which is certainly meditative, which is one example of how very slow and silent walking can be very calming.  Walking slowly anywhere works, but make your movements at half-speed; it sounds crazy, but just try it once for a few minutes, and notice what it feels like.  You can wash mindfully, or comb your hair, or brush your teeth, or eat mindfully.  All it takes is some imagination, silence, and a lack of interruptions.  The challenge is to maintain this in the thick of things, but it comes with practice.

Mindful commuting?!

While on the subject of commuting, driving a car is not a safe time to meditate, but it does however provide some excellent mindfulness opportunities – to do with Zen flow, trust, and plenty of forgiveness practice, involving our reactions to drivers demonstrating “sub-optimal driving skills”.

Certainly, commuting on a bus or a train both create practice time, for breathing, stilling thoughts, letting go emotional reactions, or just scanning our thoughts as they randomly float by.  There is no need to close eyes to practise mindfulness; just fixate on something in the lower visual field, and keep your eyes fairly still as you focus your concentration inward, on breathing, for example.  It is just practice, and this is another example of how transition zone practice becomes progressively easier and faster. 

Mindful moments in the hospital

This is all leading towards a discussion of the two narratives in our mind, the ‘out there’ one which we all need for busy concentrated cognitive activity e.g. running a ward round in the ED, and the ‘in there’ parallel mindful narrative that we learn to strengthen progressively with practice.  It all sounds a bit like a split mind but it is not really.  Perhaps it is more akin to developing an under-utilised part of our mind.

Examples of when you could hold your eyes still, drift into mindful breathing and awareness, while fully conscious and quiet, include waiting for coffee, watching the Urinalysis or VBG machine processing your test, waiting for people to arrive at a meeting or tutorial, walking to the carpark, or along a corridor to the Imaging Department…they need only be brief interludes, perhaps a minute or two, and you prove to yourself that you can do this stuff, and fairly quickly at that.

If you have the luxury of an office and some quietish non-clinical time allocation, well, where do I start?!  Plenty of chances.

“Micro-silences” through the day

We think often that we are our noisy mental chatter, and that our swinging emotional reactions are us. 

By working on identifying and creating even very short moments of mindfulness right in the middle of our busy days, we build the skill of “micro-silences”, where we realise that what is happening on the surface of our ocean, so to speak, is not the entirety of the ocean.

This skill of micro-silences also helps prepare us for difficult conversations, where our communication needs to be free from attack, focussed on listening, and open to creative solutions.  Hayden Richards covers this whole topic so well in his blog, CommLabs.

The tiny silences that we sequentially create, in all sorts of unlikely moments in our day, have the effect over time of rebuilding us.  They help us to reshape our default mode towards greater levels of equanimity, forgiveness, calm amidst chaos, and reduced abrasion in our interpersonal relationships, both at work and at home.

The “longer” practice sessions

Mindfulness ‘on the run’ is really useful, and extends our influence in the workplace, and has positive effects on others around us.  This is evidence-based from modern research in neuroscience.

However, much faster progress will come if a session of even a few minutes a day is set aside for a sustained practise of the transition techniques we have already covered.  Sitting in a comfortable chair, having freedom from interruptions, and a regular time to practise if possible, sets the scene for letting ourselves really ‘go deeper’ into a deep relaxation state, or mindfulness, or meditation – the wording is not the key thing.

These sessions are for experimenting, to try the various transition methods – some of which are listed here:

  • breathing observation,
  • slow movement, or a walking meditation
  • body scanning, of muscle tension and other visceral awareness
  • mantras
  • music
  • biofeedback devices
  • concentrating on a picture
  • focussing on a single light source
  • reading ‘affirmations’ that resonate with you

With each method, really focus on what body and mind changes are occurring during the session.   If it feels uncomfortable, stop, and do something different.  Expect some resistance at first, especially for us ‘wired’ emergency health professional types.  It passes.

Use other materials as catalysts; for example, you might find YouTube videos on the topic of mindfulness – there are some millions of them at last count!  You may be drawn to buy and read a book which reaches you.  Some people keep a diary of their mindfulness sessions.  You could join a group, either on-line or face to face.

Many roads

There are many roads to mindfulness.  Each person’s study materials will be different, and the pace of the semesters will be tailored to the individual, so to speak.  And we can certainly withdraw from the ‘course’, and defer our studies for a few years.  My own journey  in mindfulness has been of a rather stop/start nature, until the past few years.  Now, it is a central focus. Your own road to mindfulness will be unique to you.

And talking of roads, every morning in cities across the world, as traffic surges and blares incessantly, one will commonly see small city parks with groups of tai chi practitioners, who provide a brave counterpoint of calm to the noise and smoke nearby.  Slow extension of gracious arms, fingers loose, with synchronised heel turns and sliding hands, moving into a ‘brush bird’s tail’ pose.

 We can also be that brave counterpoint of calm.

Accessed 14th November, 2021.

Thanks for reading this, and take care of yourself.

A/Prof Andrew Dean FACEM

 Waiver: These articles represent my own views and approach to mindfulness, and do not purport to be the official view of ACEM.  They are not intended to replace appropriate medical or mental health care, provided by professionals in these domains.

Many people have contributed to this website and we are thankful to them all for their hard work.

MOVING LIGHT

MEDITATION JOURNEYS – “DR. ANDREW DEAN”

 

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