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How learning to meditate made me a better GP

Dr Jonty Heaversedge, a GP in southeast London, explains why meditation and ‘mindfulness’ can have tangible benefits in a GP’s daily working life.

When I first heard about meditation and mindfulness I made a range of assumptions. When I talked about it to my friends they joked about the idea of me sitting cross-legged and eating lentils.

I was worried about getting involved in anything ‘religious’. I am generally somewhat cynical and, as a GP, my training has been based on scientific evidence.

My initial reasons for seeking out mindfulness were primarily personal – I was feeling pretty stuck in own life and wanted to find something to help me settle my mind and see more clearly how I needed to change.

I was lucky enough to find the Shambhala Meditation Centre in London. It offered a more secular approach to meditation and the teachers were open to my process of exploration. What I have learned since has inspired me both personally and professionally.

I am better at noticing my thoughts and actions, and the impact they have on me and other people. I am able to do this with less self-criticism and more humour than I used to. I am inquisitive about my life without feeling driven to try and solve every problem I encounter, and without getting trapped in a constant cycle of self-improvement.

Regular meditation has made me better able to be present in every situation that I encounter. This is not always comfortable – mindfulness allows us to see things as they are rather than as we would like them to be – but it also enables our head and our heart to cope no matter what the circumstances.

As a GP I am able to retain a degree of clarity in an otherwise hectic job, I am more confident in my relationships with colleagues, and I am more able to connect with my patients.

I am more attentive in consultations and less distracted by all the other thoughts jockeying for my attention. Overall, I am more able to see the big picture and to focus on caring for my patients not simply curing them.

Working in the grey area where biological, psychological, social and spiritual meet is very much the realm of the GP – we try to help people with their ‘pain’ no matter what its source.

What I haven’t had available to me in the past, however, has been an approach that integrated mind and body and allowed me, or my patients, to connect the two. Mindfulness encourages just that. It is not simply a psychological technique for the treatment of mental health problems. It is a way of being in the world that allows us all to relate differently to every aspect of our lives.

A report put together recently by the Mental Health Foundation lays out the evidence for the sceptics. Research in this area is not easy but there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that mindfulness practices can benefit every aspect of health and wellbeing.

The benefits of mindfulness in managing mental health problems are now pretty well understood and accepted – to the extent that it is recommended by NICE as a cost-effective treatment to prevent relapse in recurrent depression.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy halves the relapse rate in those who’ve had more than two episodes of depression and is as effective as antidepressant medication.

And the advantages of mindfulness go way beyond treating specific mental health problems. It can improve physical health by providing an antidote to the epidemic of stress that we are currently seeing – reducing cardiovascular risk and optimising immune functioning.

It also helps people manage chronic symptoms such as unremitting pain for which conventional medicine has only limited options available. Mindfulness can also help more widely by facilitating change in people with addictions, or even just unhealthy habits. It can improve the quality of our relationships and at work it can enhance our ability to pay attention and make better decisions.

Like most GPs, here in southeast London I currently have no NHS access to even NICE-recommended mindfulness interventions for patients who I know would benefit from them. But I very much hope that, given the growing body of evidence regarding its benefits and the increasing need for some way of looking after our minds in the 21st century, this will soon change.

Dr Jonty Heaversedge is the author of the forthcoming book ‘The Mindful Manifesto’ published by Hay House.

Mindfulness is recommended by NICE as a cost effective treatment to prevent relapse in recurrent depression (credit: SuperFantastic Flickr)