Calm and Focus

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by purposefully and nonjudgmentally paying attention to present moment experience. That definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

“The origins of mindfulness-based stress reduction date back to 1979. He [Kabat-Zinn] developed a wonderful program that’s grown to be taught all over the world,” explained Carol Greco, PhD, licensed psychologist and certified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) instructor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Integrative Medicine.

Greco began her mindfulness practice after meeting Kabat-Zinn in the early 1990s. He had been studying drug-free pain relieving techniques for his patients.

Inspired by the meeting, Greco began to practice meditation. “It was profoundly transformative for me,” she said. Knowing how helpful it has been to her, 10 years after starting her personal practice, she trained to become an MBSR teacher. “I realized, this is not a trivial thing to teach people.”

Teaching Mindfulness
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is an 8-week course that guides participants through meditation. It is a skills-based course that takes advantage of how adults learn experientially. Through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Greco has brought the course to various healthcare workers, including nurses.

The class consisted of eight 2- to 2.5-hour meetings. Students engage in different styles of mindfulness meditation, such as body scanning, mindful movement and sitting meditation. The group practices Hatha yoga, consisting of gentle postures. They discuss the connection between thoughts and emotions and anxiety and stress. Each participant is encouraged to meditate at home with the help of downloaded guides. A retreat day takes place near the end of the course.

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“How do we meet stressors in our live? How do we work with the lives we have and the bodies we have to be more kind to ourselves?” asked Greco. Exploring questions is at the heart of MBSR.

Arranging Complex Priorities
The concept of stress is no stranger to nurses like Susan L. Underwood, MSN, RN, CNRN, a clinical education specialist at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy, who took the course last year. “There are a lot of different priorities. You need to thoughtfully organize yourself and get your priorities straight,” she said about her complex job.

Underwood was not a total novice to some of the course’s concepts. She has practiced yoga and learned about the idea of centering oneself. “I had been hearing about mindfulness being a strategy to focus and have less stress,” she recalled. “I was curious about what exactly it was.”

By learning mindfulness, people become less reactive to situations that used to push their buttons. They respond more reflectively to things that come their way. Dealing with uncertainty is part of daily life for nurses. Underwood explained, “Our industry is rapid-paced. There is no downtime in the acute care setting.” Discovering ongoing ways to keep calm and focused is helpful in healthcare.

Staying in the Present Moment
The nature of nurses’ jobs means they can be surrounded by suffering. “What brought us to the healthcare profession is that something inside us wants to help,” said Greco. “Nurses are better able to be present with suffering patient and then when they move onto the next thing, they are present there.”

MBSR teaches nurses to better decompress, so that they are less likely to bring their work home with them. Mindfulness helps healthcare workers acknowledge they have tough jobs and that it’s okay to care about their patients. They learn to take deep breaths and better transition to home. “For a lot of people, it’s an easy way to take control if your anxiety is escalating,” noted Underwood.

Underwood’s main takeaway from the course was the breathing techniques. She explained, “When I need to, I can slow down and use the technique to keep from getting disorganized and stressed.”

Lowering Job Stress
“Taking the 8-week course is a big time commitment,” Greco acknowledged. Fortunately, there are smaller ways nurses can incorporate mindfulness into their work lives and interrupt the cycle of stress.

“Pay attention to your body. We get stressed out and don’t breathe deeply and our stomach clenches,” she said. Greco advised downloading a guided meditation app. Something as simple as a sign reading “Breathe” on the nurses’ station can be a beneficial reminder. “Write down quotes that help you remember you are more than your current stress,” she added.

There have been growing discussions about bringing mindfulness to leadership. “It’s really grounded in what’s going on right now,” observed Greco. She’s received invitations to talk to nursing administrators. “It’s cool there is so much interest.”

Greco stressed that every student gets something different out of MBSR. “It takes practice,” she acknowledged. Even as an instructor, her personal mindfulness practice is constantly growing and evolving. For her part, Underwood said, “The idea to reach out to nurse was insightful. Everyone can benefit.”

Danielle Bullen is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact:

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