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Caring for ourselves

Mindfulness practice can help minimize medical woes

You may or may not appreciate the Affordable Care Act (ACA), though most of us would appreciate more affordable health care. In this country we spend far more per capita on doctors, therapists, drugs and procedures than most people on the planet, and we are generally less healthy. With that as background, the aim of the ACA has been to help keep the costs down while improving health care. Let’s hope this happens.Photo Credit: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Shawn Good, an MBSR graduate and PsyD graduate student at Pacific University, discusses the benefits of a regular mindfulness practice as a complement to health care.

Although we all want more affordable health care, it’s probably true that most of us could be taking better care of ourselves; eating healthier foods, exercising more, reducing stress and so on. We may ignore this for a while, but our loved ones, doctors and therapists remind us to be better to ourselves. Hopefully, we heed their advice before preventable diseases such as diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease or stroke rings our bell.

Many primary care doctors and therapists will admit that a large portion of their patients wouldn’t need to visit the office so often if they were taking better care of themselves. We want clinicians to "fix what is wrong," but we could just as well "improve what is right" with a little more proactive self-care. Fewer visits would then be less expensive. We would be healthier to boot. Affordable care because less would be needed.

While the Affordable Care Act won’t make us get up and start exercising more, eating better or reduce our stress, there are local initiatives that intend to help us with that. In Oregon there is the Patient-Centered Primary Care Home Program (PCPCH) the Legislature established in 2009 to fulfill a vision of better health, better care and lower costs for all Oregonians. A central tenet of the PCPCH is to help people play an active role in their health. In this model, physicians, therapists, pharmacists, nutritionists and others concerned with your health form a team to help with whatever health needs are called for, including helping you learn to care for yourself.

You may be rolling your eyes with the thought of a doctor urging you to eat a healthier diet, a therapist advising trips to the gym, your counselor providing another book and other advised self-care that you know will last a few weeks or months and then fade away. However, there is now excellent evidence that practicing one of our inherent human gifts provides an enduring, simple and very effective way to enhance our ability and desire to care for ourselves. This gift is the ability to be more attentive and less reactive through mindfulness.

A wide variety of scientific studies — including several conducted at the Stress Reduction Clinic with Pacific University’s Professional Psychology Program in Hillsboro — have found that people who begin to practice mindfulness have profound and enduring improvements in many health status measures, such as anxiety, blood pressure, stress levels and more. One recent study here also showed that levels of proactive self-care improved significantly. It’s a small leap to realize that when folks begin practicing a way of being that is more attentive and less reactive, they will gravitate to taking better care of themselves. Life is less difficult with a very simple practice we can do for ourselves anywhere at any time.

There is a well-studied method of learning to practice mindfulness that has evolved over the past 30 years, called "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR). It’s so effective that more than a hundred local health care providers have been making referrals to our MBSR programs over many years. Further, psychology graduate students at Pacific University have been receiving mindfulness training as a core element of their curriculum. Additionally, many students are enrolling in the MBSR program and finding it to be a very helpful complement to their training as well as something they want to share with future clients.

To begin a conversation on how we can best integrate mindfulness into our local health care environment, we invited students, faculty and local alumni of the MBSR program to discuss ways to help future therapists and physicians learn how to teach what is learned in MBSR. The group generally agreed:

• The practice of mindfulness seems to be a natural and effective element of health care;

• Mindfulness training stimulates a transformation in one’s willingness and ability for self-care;

• The training is appropriate for clinicians to help them be less distracted and to enhance their level of self-care; and

• Well-designed mindfulness teacher-training for future therapists and doctors is possible in the years ahead


Contributing authors: Dr. Matthew Hunsinger and Dr. Michael Christopher, School of Professional Psychology, Pacific University; Dr. Lisa Aebi, Family Medicine, Kaiser Permanente.

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