How Mindfulness Can Improve Nurses’ Mental and Physical Health
By Jennifer Larson, contributor
Mindfulness interventions are helping nurses relieve stress during trying times
Every afternoon at 3 p.m., three chimes ring out in the hallways of Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York.
The chimes are repeated again at 10 p.m. each evening. They’re a gentle reminder to all who hear them to stop what they’re doing and breathe, to notice how they’re feeling in that moment. Then they can be ready to refocus.
“It has been really well received,” said Eileen Hinrichs, BSN, RN, NC-BC, chair of the holistic council at Mount Sinai South Nassau.
Perhaps that’s because everyone is feeling extra stressed these days—whether from COVID cases or just general patient care—and can benefit from a few moments to focus on the present and recenter themselves. This is the hallmark of mindfulness, and a growing number of people, including many healthcare professionals, are finding that embracing mindfulness can help improve their health.
In fact, mindfulness is a key technique to aid in self-care for nurses, which is the emphasis for the first week of Nurses Month 2021.
What the research says
Mindfulness is staying present in the moment, paying attention to how you feel and what’s going on around you. It’s not letting your mind race ahead of you into the future or agonize over something that happened in the past.
“If you want to boil it down to one thing, it’s noticing where your attention is at any given moment,” says John Shepard, RN, a critical care nurse at Indiana University Health.
If that sounds like it might help you, that’s for good reason. A growing body of research confirms the benefits of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions.
For example, a 2018 systematic review of more than 140 randomized clinical trials published in Clinical Psychology Review found that mindfulness interventions were effective in addressing clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders like depression and addiction. In fact, the researchers found that they were more effective than evidence-based treatments in some situations.
When you are able to reduce your stress levels, it has a positive impact on your body, too. For example, a 2013 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine suggested that incorporating some mindfulness techniques into your life may help you lower your blood pressure. And a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that mindfulness meditation could be useful in conjunction with other strategies to reduce a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.
How healthcare organizations embrace mindfulness
In recognition of the benefits, a growing number of healthcare organizations are finding ways to embrace mindfulness and make it part of their organizational culture.
Shepard began his own mindfulness practice about seven years ago. He used a guided meditation app with a smartphone in a small open area just off the ICU before beginning his shifts.
“Slowly, people started joining me. That was kind of cool,” he remembers. Eventually, leadership took notice and asked him to coordinate a mindfulness program for the organization. Today, a big part of his job is encouraging fellow nurses and others to learn how to use mindfulness in their daily lives.
Shepard can tell others how mindfulness has personally helped him. The ICU is a very stressful place, where people can and often do get pushed to their limits, and he remembers getting anxious and tense.
“These practices helped me notice that a little bit earlier, so I could actually practice bringing some awareness to it,” he said.
Mount Sinai South Nassau also deliberately incorporates opportunities for staff to learn stress reduction techniques, including mindfulness, and practice self-care. One recent example: a 15-minute reflective spring meditation workshop to help participants learn how to use some simple stress-management tools to feel calmer and more balanced.
These techniques can be especially useful today, in a time when people are so connected via technology that it can be hard to really remove yourself enough to decompress. “There’s never downtime,” noted Hinrichs. ‘We are connected continuously and bombarded by technology.”
Over this past year of the pandemic, making space to be silent and reset has become even more crucial. And that’s what learning and using a few simple mindfulness strategies can help people accomplish.
Try these mindfulness apps and techniques
If your organization offers mindfulness practice sessions or other stress reduction opportunities, be sure to check them out. Or on your own time, you can try a few of these simple activities:
- Listen to guided meditation. Try a free mindfulness app like Smiling Mind or UCLA Mindful, or a subscription app like Headspace or Calm. (American Mobile offers free access to some of the Calm website features for its travel nurses.)
- Breathe deeply. Taking a few long, slow, deep breaths from your belly can do wonders when it comes to helping you calm down and feel a little less frenzied. While you inhale and exhale, concentrate on how it feels.
- Observe mindfully. Choose a nearby object, perhaps something visible through a window, to look at. Look at it carefully and try to notice as much as you can about it: its size, color, shape, whether or not it’s moving, etc. Don’t label or judge what you see. Just observe.
Whenever you’re engaging in a mindfulness activity, if you feel your mind starting to wander, notice that, too. Then deliberately bring your attention back to the moment, to the present. Don’t feel guilty about it or fret about it. It often takes some time and practice to stay focused.
Experts note that when you consistently practice mindfulness, it will shift your perception. You may be more likely to default to a positive attitude, rather than a negative outlook.
“When you practice mindfulness, it’s a lot easier to do that,” said Hinrichs.
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