Staffing: Making Mindfulness Work


Tap into the underutilized resource for managing stress.

The symptoms are easy to notice. Sleep and appetite disturbances. Feeling anxious, on edge, stressed out, confused. Difficulty concentrating, guilt, shame, anger, mood swings and hopelessness. Withdrawing from loved ones.

Do any of them sound familiar? They’re all caused by trauma, and to describe the past year as anything less than traumatic is to minimize the experiences of healthcare workers who were at the center of the pandemic. From the early struggles of not having enough PPE and the intense and debilitating fear that you might bring COVID-19 home to your family, to the rise of the delta and omicron variants — which feels like the strange rerun of a horror movie no one wanted to watch the first time — you’ve faced difficult challenges while juggling the pressures of the pandemic collapse: virtual schooling, the economy in free fall and some of the most extreme political upheaval our nation has ever experienced. Yes, to call the past year anything less than traumatic is to minimize what you have sacrificed for the greater good of our society.

Finding ways to heal

As is the case after all traumatic experiences, those who have lived it are left looking at the aftermath and asking, “What now?” Feelings of depression, anxiety and numbness make it difficult to move toward healing and the still-surging virus can bring feelings of panic and foreboding. This is not a sustainable place to be for both your physical and mental health. Yet, taking necessary steps to heal can feel overwhelming, especially when nurses and other healthcare staff are feeling paralyzed by the current state of the pandemic. How do you begin the healing process?

The first step is a simple one: Take a deep breath. That’s it. While this seems like over-simplified, ancient wisdom, research supports the practice. Trauma impacts very specific areas of the brain: the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, is suppressed during traumatic experiences. At the same time, the amygdala — the area of the brain responsible for stress, fear and anxiety — is heightened. This is especially true when the trauma continually repeats itself. When this happens, it’s incredibly important to break the cycle of suppressing the hippocampus and pumping up the amygdala.

Mindfulness does just that. According to a 2011 Harvard study, participants who practiced eight weeks of mindfulness training showed an increase in brain cell volume of the hippocampus and a decrease in brain cell matter of the amygdala. In other words, the participants increased their concentration and clear thinking, and decreased their anxiety and internal chaos. To put it simply, mindfulness positively impacts the areas of the brain that are negatively impacted by trauma. It’s the salve that many of us need right now. Growing evidence also suggests that mindfulness is useful in preventing burnout and creating feelings of well-being, empathy and stress reduction — especially when applied to medical personnel.

'Three and Me'

Mindfulness is a term that’s used regularly, but often misunderstood. What does mindfulness really look like in the world of health care? Put simply, it’s the act of paying full attention to one thing without judgement. There are many opportunities to weave mindfulness into systems, meetings and procedures, but the first step starts with individuals.

Creating a habit of small mindfulness check-ins, which you can do whenever you need to create more clarity for yourself, can not only assist in healing from trauma, but it can help with burnout prevention and stress management. You can start by taking 30 seconds to be present in a guided and meaningful way. If you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness, begin the journey with a “Three and Me” check-in.

Three and Me is a simple, quick and efficient way to reset your day and engage the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that makes logical and meaningful decisions. Start by pushing your feet into the ground and wiggling your toes three times. Really try to feel each toe while you wiggle them. If you get distracted, bring your attention back to what you’re doing. Focus your thoughts as much as you can on how your body feels as you do this exercise.

Place a hand on your heart and scrunch your shoulders, then release them. Do this three times. Focus on feeling your muscles constrict and relax. If judgements or intense thoughts come up, try your best to acknowledge them and then refocus on your shoulders.

Next, take three deep breaths while trying to breathe out more slowly than you breathe in.

Lastly, “Acknowledge the Me.” Check in with how you’re feeling, recognizing what is true and real for you in the moment. This can be a tricky exercise if you’ve never done it before or if recognizing your own experiences and truth is new for you. Start with your physical experience; you might realize that you’re tired or hungry or even that you have to go to the bathroom. Perceive how your body is feeling in the moment. Try your best to focus on your sensations and do something for yourself. Take a walk outside or grab a warm cup of tea.

If recognizing your experience in the moment is easy for you, try some more in-depth and deeply healing statements such as “I’m proud of myself today” or “I wish I had done this better.” Finish the exercise by taking a few seconds to acknowledge that by practicing mindfulness you’re helping yourself heal, which will benefit your team, your patients and your loved ones. OSM

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