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More on Mindfulness: Recognizing Your Stress Response

Hilary McClafferty, MD, FAAP

Mindfulness, described by Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. as “paying attention, on purpose, with moment-to-moment awareness, in a particular way, without judgment”, is a highly adaptable practice that is gaining support in the medical community for both physicians and patients.

The benefits of mindfulness in physicians have been widely reported and include stress reduction, increased self-awareness, improved listening, increased attention and compassion, more thoughtful decision-making, increased adaptive reserve, and reduction in ruminative thoughts. (West)

Cultivating an internal locus of control may be one of the most important components of mindfulness in physicians, where perceived loss of control over professional life is a common theme with the advent of electronic medical records, productivity pressures, and insurance company regulations.

The feeling of losing control both generates and exacerbates stress, which in turn activates unwanted physiologic changes such as up-regulation of the inflammatory response and triggering of the classic ‘freeze, fight, flight’ response.

An important first step in cultivating an enhanced internal locus of control is recognition of your own typical stress response. This can be challenging for some physicians who have been living with elevated stress levels for so long it has become their ‘new normal’. Common themes mentioned by physicians include elevated heart rate, palpitations, perspiration, muscle tension, irritability, anger, overeating, heartburn, headaches, and social withdrawal.

If you develop the skill of early stress recognition you can interrupt the well-worn physiologic feedback loops associated with the stress response and instead learn to trigger your relaxation response- resulting in slowing of the heart rate, reduction of blood pressure, decrease in cortisol release, and respiratory rate, and recapture of emotional equilibrium.

Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in this process by training you to focus attention on the present moment and separate the stress stimulus from your response to the stimulus. Allowing yourself that instant of recognition provides you with an opportunity to use a simple physiologic trigger, for example, a conscious breath, which you can use to cue a cascade of physiologic relaxation such as muscle loosening, heart rate slowing, reduction in blood pressure and so on which result in a protective buffering from the wear and tear of chronic and acute stress.

Over time, one can learn to create a default state of relaxed awareness using mindfulness, which in turn has the potential to promote more effective problem solving, clearer communication, reduced emotional reactivity, and lowering of baseline stress levels with benefit to your overall health.

Mindfulness is a powerful, flexible, and effective tool and as with most things takes time to refine. Perhaps over the next two weeks, you can begin to practice simply noticing how you are feeling as you move through your day. Keep a simple journal to record your findings in a quiet moment, perhaps at the end of the day. This will help provide insight into your physical, emotional, and behavioral baseline and provide a starting point for change. Here are the steps to practice:

  1. Pay attention with kindness
  2. Notice your stress response
  3. Pause
  4. Recognize your opportunity
  5. Take a breath
  6. Exhale
  7. Consciously cue your relaxation response
  8. Choose your next action or word with mindfulness

Practice, reflect, repeat, and continue to care for yourself day by day.


West, et al., Intervention to promote physician well-being, job satisfaction, and professionalism: a randomized clinical trial JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Apr;174(4):527-33. PMID: 24515493