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Kim Penberthy

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Kim Penberthy
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After her childhood with a mother deeply interested in meditative and contemplative techniques, Dr. Kim Penberthy’s interest in mindfulness deepened through her experiences with transcendental meditation as an undergraduate student. Now a researcher and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Science, Dr. Kim Penberthy is an innovator using contemplative practices to help those people experiencing deep mental suffering and to educate medical residents and physicians in how best to work with distressed patients while also taking care of themselves. Because of the unique nature of her work, Dr. Penberthy explains that she does not necessarily need to set aside time to meditate: “I can incorporate contemplative practices into my daily life—I’m a clinical psychologist and what that means really is being fully present in the moment, nonjudgmentally, with patients. It’s really a daily, hourly mindfulness practice in itself.”

An important part of Dr. Penberthy’s work at the University of Virginia is organizing a yearlong seminar for medical residents in Psychiatry where she introduces students to concrete techniques to integrate contemplative practices into their work with patients: “When working with residents, I introduce mindful-based therapies by doing some exercises when we first meet—settling in and talking about what that it is like to be present, just scanning their bodies and talking about where they are.” While many students have responded positively, some students are deeply concerned about incorporating mindfulness practices into their work with patients, a phenomenon which Dr. Penberthy explains is “often based on their own fear. I had one brave soul admit to me that he didn’t want to ask his patient what they were feeling right now, because then they would answer, and he wouldn’t know what to do. He was afraid he would somehow damage this person.” To challenge this fear, Dr. Penberthy works with students “to reinforce the internal knowledge they have within themselves. I tell them ‘if you can be a good friend, you can be a good therapist—it’s really the same skills.’ I think a lot of them realize that, even if they don’t necessarily use the lingo or the terminology of mindfulness.” Preparing residents to be better therapists not only helps their future patients, but also provides tools for the students themselves: “So many of the residents coming into our program are demoralized—they’ve worked long hours, and they’re scared because they don’t know if they know enough. At the same time, they have their own issues—divorce, anxiety, depression. I like to think that these mindfulness techniques can help them as well, so they can then go forward and help other people.”

Beyond her instruction of medical residents, Dr. Penberthy uses contemplative practices as the foundation of her research on addiction and smoking cessation. In one research project, Dr. Penberthy uses a technique to help alcoholics use a mindful focus on the present moment to combat cravings: “We know that when people addicted to alcohol are trying to quit drinking, they can begin to ruminate or experience cravings to drink which can trigger relapse behavior. We use mindfulness practices based on those of Jon Kabat-Zinn to help them cope with their cravings and avoid relapse.” In her work with those suffering from addiction, Dr. Penberthy particularly utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy (CBASP), which is an interpersonal mindfulness-based therapy that “looks at the connection between the depression and the alcohol. The idea is that depression activates the desire to run away and not be mindful—to escape, to numb out, and not have feelings. In response, people drink, and it works in the short term, but it doesn’t solve the problem. This therapy helps them be present and feel safe, to be mindfully here and present in an interpersonal setting with someone, because typically no one has helped them connect their drinking and their depression.” Dr. Penberthy’s research clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of those therapies which include a contemplative component because “none of the therapies work really well if the person is not in a mindful state. We’re trying to use mindfulness within the therapy to augment it, not supplant it.”

Although the work that Dr. Penberthy pursues can be heartbreaking, she explains that if “If I didn’t have mindfulness practice, I would be overwhelmed by sorrow and disgust for the human race. The stories I hear are horrifying, but mindfulness practices have enabled me to do this work for so long. … I hear them, I feel their pain, but then I can breathe out some relief because I can take it all in and I have something to offer.“ Based on her own experience working with medical residents and students, Dr. Penberthy is optimistic that contemplative practices are going to become increasingly utilized throughout the University of Virginia. She explains that in her experience, “courses like this are definitely going to become more common at the university. Students are hungry for it—everything the Contemplative Sciences Center has offered, people are just soaking it up. All these events we have sponsored, there is just such amazing turn out. It is indicative that people here at the University of Virginia are really looking for something.”