Is mindfulness a remedy for burnout? A provocative new study suggests it just might be. The study showed reduced stress levels and greater emotional resilience in individuals trained to practice a "secular" form of mindfuless--one that promotes focus and empathy via a heightened awareness of thoughts and bodily sensations like breathing.
The study was conducted in a group of teachers, but one of the scientists behind the research says there's an important takeaway lesson for all of us.
"Well-being is actually a skill," said Dr. Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the study's senior author. "It's something that can be enhanced with training. If we can take more responsibility for our well-being, we can help to minimize burnout or decrease its severity."
Mindfulness seems to benefit the mind just as physical exercise benefits the body, Dr. Davidson said. And while the new study's findings were based primarily on questionnaires and classroom observations, previous research--including a 2011 study by Harvard researchers--linked mindfulness-based stress reduction to structural changes in the brain. Other research linked mindfulness meditation to lower levels of cortisol, a so-called stress hormone.
For the new study, 18 public elementary schoolteachers attended a weekly mindfulness training session, in addition to an all-day "immersion experience." After eight weeks in which they practiced meditation for at least 15 minutes daily, the teachers showed reduced symptoms of burnout as indicated by a 22-item scale, compared to a control group of teachers who did not receive mindfulness training.
What might that mean in real-world terms?
"Imagine a teacher in her classroom attempting to teach material that he or she is focused on, and a child has an emotional outburst," Dr. Davidson said. "To some teachers that outburst would really jangle their performance. But others are able to respond appropriately"--with the help of mindfulness training.
The training may be beneficial for students as well as the teachers themselves.
"Breath awareness was just one part of the training, but it was something that I was able to consistently put into practice," Elizabeth Miller, one of the teachers who received the training, said in a written statement. "Now I spend more time getting students to notice how they're feeling, physically and emotionally, before reacting to something. I think this act of self-monitoring was the biggest long-term benefit for both students and teachers."
But don't assume that breath-training is the fix for every burnout problem. As Davidson said, "It is clear from this and every other study that's been done that there is likely not one size that fits all."
The study was published in the September 2013 issue of the journal Mind, Brain and Education.