Mindful Self-Compassion benefits health care providers, especially those lacking in self-compassion

Chaplain, Trained MSC Teacher, and founder of the
Center for Resiliency at Dell Children’s Medical Center

Burnout in the healthcare profession today is over 50% in some regions of the world with many physicians and nurses leaving the profession. The rate of suicide among physicians in the United States is double the national average for professionals in comparable fields. While traditional forms of meditation have been proven to improve stress and overall well-being, many healthcare professionals do not practice consistently, if at all, and many report that meditation as “too touchy-feely” or “too time-consuming.”

Mindful Self-Compassion, which includes meditation, also offers tools and practices that can be accessed quickly DURING the experience of suffering alongside patients and families, when the healthcare professional cannot step away to attend to their own self-care.

Additionally, in the trauma-inducing profession of healthcare, Mindful Self-Compassion directly addresses backdraft, encouraging the tentative healthcare provider to move slowly into awareness and emotional availability, especially since the healthcare profession has traditionally taught individuals to compartmentalize such emotions. More specifically, healthcare professionals — while quick to recognize the suffering of their patients and families — are very slow to identify their own personal suffering, even hesitating to use the word “suffering” in reference to their own experience.

For the past three years, Dr. Kristin Neff and I, along with two PhD candidates and MSC trained teachers, Marissa Knox and Phoebe Long, partnered to research the viability of an abbreviated version of the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion course with healthcare professionals. The central question was whether an abbreviated version with much of the meditation taken out would show any effect for this group of people who so desperately needed tools to cope with their own suffering. We conducted a randomized-controlled trial of a brief, six-week (one hour per week) Mindful Self-Compassion training for health-care professionals to evaluate its effectiveness. We compared a group who took the training to a waitlist control group in terms of self-compassion, mindfulness, compassion for others, compassion satisfaction, depression, anxiety, and stress.

While those who did not receive the curriculum showed no change, the intervention group experienced significant increases in self-compassion, mindfulness, compassion for others, compassion satisfaction, and decreases in stress, with all gains being maintained three months later.

Pre-existing levels of self-compassion moderated the effect of the intervention, so that those initially low in self-compassion experienced greater gains in this trait and also significantly decreased levels of depression. Additionally, results indicated that increases in self-compassion helped explain the effectiveness of the intervention, so that increased self-compassion mediated changes in mindfulness, depression, anxiety and stress. In summary, the research results suggest that brief training in Mindful Self-Compassion may have beneficial effects for health care providers, especially for those lacking in self-compassion.

Anecdotally, we have been hearing things like, “This course changed my life.” “I was planning to leave medicine before taking this course.” After the practice Soften, Soothe, Allow was introduced, a trauma surgeon said,

“I now understand what is underneath my overall stress…. I am angry …or I am grieving …or I am sad. Now that I know that, I can do something about it instead of projecting it on other people or thinking that I can compartmentalize it away.”

Last winter, I ran into one of the physicians in the hallway who had been through the course a few months earlier. I asked her where she had been since I had not seen her in a while. She said, “I know. I don’t live here (aka the hospital) anymore. I have a life now and am enjoying my daughter. I never thought that would be possible as a physician.” We talked about how the course had changed the way she thinks about herself, which gave her the tools to make the behavioral changes that she needed and wanted to support the core values she was now identifying.

In my experience, having been at the bedside with patients and families and staff for most of my 25-year career as a hospital chaplain, this brief intervention opens up healthcare professionals to an entirely new world, gently and practically, making a robust tool more accessible to a group of people who desperately need language and tools to cope with their daily experiences of suffering. It is not something that is taught to them in their traditional educational process, yet is something they must learn if they are to endure the level of suffering they experience in the healing professions so they can live meaningful and whole human lives.

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