By Sandra C. Brook, R.N.
‘Please give me strength to be compassionate and not injure anyone today,’ I repeated to myself while pulling up the support hosiery I wore to tame the varicose vein pain I’d endure over the next 12-hour hospital shift. My job was so demanding and the needs of patients in the Emergency Department so great, I often ignored my own discomfort. At the same time, I feared making a mistake that might do harm to a patient. There were so many people to care for, so many treatments to perform, so many medications to give—and all with the grace of a nurse.
I planned to stay in the healthcare field for decades to come. How could I find strength throughout the day and preserve my passion for the job over time?
When Hospital Work Takes A Toll
The pace of jobs in healthcare is fast and furious, and the degree of human suffering encountered by workers and volunteers unparalleled in any other industry. For nurses, there are treatments, procedures, surgeries and medications to monitor, and an ICU patient bedside can trigger approximately 350 alarms per shift to which one must discern and respond to.4 Most patients and their visitors are kind and appreciative to hospital staff and volunteers, while others can appear insistent and critical to those caring for them during this stressful time. Either way, one must be professional and compassionate to ensure that patients have the best possible outcomes. In hospitals, suffering occurs with patients, their loved ones and all of those caring for them, and bearing witness to it all, every work day, can take its toll.
Over time, some healthcare providers become tired and jaded. Compassion fatigue sets in. They can develop depression and anxiety as their jobs and personal lives demand greater attention. Feelings of being overwhelmed by digital demands and constant stimulus in the hospital become more apparent. Such emotionally and physically challenging jobs have high professional fatigue and burnout rates. In September 2007, Dr. Christine T. Kovner and colleagues found that 13% of newly licensed RNs had changed principal jobs after one year, and 37% reported that they felt ready to change jobs.1
The Meditation Solution
Many hospital workers and volunteers are turning to relaxation and meditation because it has been scientifically proven to improve overall physical and mental wellbeing and decrease stress symptoms.4
It turns out that routine mental exercise is as important as routine physical exercise. Training your brain is like training your muscles—it takes time and persistence. Neuroscientists use the following analogy to describe how the brain changes: with physical exercise, muscles become larger and denser with muscle mass. In a similar way, when the brain is exercised with meditation, it becomes larger and denser with neural mass or gray matter. The phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity and describes how the brain actually changes throughout life.2
Scientists are also finding that the mind can change as a result of the thoughts we think, and perhaps, lead to a greater capacity for empathy, compassion and even happiness. So, for healthcare providers working with people who are suffering, meditation can help them to be more compassionate.
When your mood is lifted, your body responds1. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School found in his research that depression, loneliness and psychological conditions prevalent in westerners can be alleviated with meditation. And a study conducted at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and published by the American Heart Association showed that African Americans with heart disease who practiced transcendental meditation regularly were 48% less likely to have a heart attack, stroke or die compared with those who attended a health education class over more than five years. Those practicing meditation also lowered their blood pressure and reported less stress and anger. And the more regularly patients meditated, the greater their survival, said researchers who conducted the study.
How Is It Done?
There are many ways to meditate, including meditation with movement such as Tai Chi, mindfulness, transcendental meditation and more, but the key is to find what is most comfortable and effective for you. Focusing awareness and performing controlled gentle breathing are common elements to each of the various meditation techniques.
Gentle diaphragmatic breathing alone is key to inducing the relaxation response by stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure. With effective diaphragmatic breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated as well, further decreasing work stress.3 To induce the relaxation response, try this technique:
Step 1: Place the palm of one hand on the chest and the other hand over the naval.
Step 2: Inhale deeply down to the lower lungs so that the hand on the naval moves first.
Step 3: Slowly and effortlessly exhale.
Step 4: Calm your mind & focus on the breath. Continue exercise for 2-5 minutes at a time.
Know that your mind will wander, because that is what the human mind does. Part of the mental training is the experience of letting thoughts pass by and returning your attention to your breathing. Silently repeating a mantra can also help to calm your mind. Try an inspirational phrase, such as ‘I am love’ or ‘I have compassion for myself and those around me.’
To incorporate this meditation practice into a hospital job, create a habit of doing the breathing exercise each time you perform a repetitive task such as hand washing or documenting in patient charts. This can be a reminder to slow down and be mindful throughout your workday. Many hospitals have meditation rooms or chapels, spaces intended for personal prayer, meditation, or reflection that are often underutilized. Caregivers, healthcare personnel and volunteers could benefit from going there during work breaks to meditate and calm the mind.
Still not sure if meditation is right for you? Talk with someone who has already started meditating routinely; you may be surprised at how much it has changed their physical and mental wellbeing.
About the Author
Sandra Brook, R.N. is a meditation specialist who teaches the benefits of meditation and also how to establish your own relaxation and meditation practice. She also does speaking engagements for companies and conferences. For more information on her practice, you may contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation. R. J. Davidson and A. Lutz in IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 1, pages 174–176; January 1, 2008.
2. Schocker, L. LOOK: What Meditation Can Do For Your Mind, Body And Spirit. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/14/meditation-mind-body-spirit_n_5291361.html
3. Dr. Herbert Benson's Relaxation Response. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart-and-soul-healing/201303/dr-herbert-benson-s-relaxation-response
4. Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation. Clinical Alarms: 2011 Summit. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.aami.org/publications/summits/2011_Alarms_Summit_ publication.pdf