Let It Go! Mindfulness Techniques for Nurses

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Stress management for nursesDiane Sieg is a speaker, author, mindfulness coach and yoga teacher. But Sieg also knows what it’s like to be a first responder.

She was an emergency room nurse for over 20 years and treated many people in distress. Sieg saw most patients ended up in the emergency room because of their lifestyle choices. Her experience prompted her to write the book, “Stop Living Life Like an Emergency!” in 2002.

Then Sieg was put to the test when she went through a painful divorce. She deepened her mindfulness practices of yoga, deep breathing and meditation as a coping mechanism. Now her mission is to bring mindfulness to the health care system.

“We practice deep breathing and other mindfulness techniques with patients, but we don’t do it for ourselves,” Sieg says.

Stress and burnout in nursing

Nurses experience stress on a regular basis and may not even realize the toll it has taken. And beyond stress, some nurses experience compassion fatigue, described as “an emotional, physical and spiritual exhaustion from witnessing and absorbing the problems and suffering of others.” The term was first described by Carla Joinson, a nurse who was studying emergency room personnel in 1992. It can happen to any nurse, but is most common with oncology and emergency room nurses.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. A study published in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health described 40 nurses who practiced MBSR for two months and showed statistical improvement in overall health and well-being.

“Mindfulness changes our brain, gives us perspective and alters our behavior,” Sieg says.

How mindfulness in nursing cuts stress

Diane Sieg

Diane Sieg

Sieg recently worked with employees at Boulder Community Health in Colorado to better cope with an upcoming facility move. She challenged the 572 employees to practice deep breathing and meditation for 30 days before the move. Participants measured their stress using a Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and reported a 26 percent reduction in stress one month later.

“Letting go is a huge quality and practice of mindfulness,” she says. “Everything changes and everything ends.” She explains the practice of letting go is especially important for nurses because of the firsthand experience with the trauma and dramas of other people’s lives and misfortunes. “You have to be able to let that go so that you can take care of other people, sleep at night, and not burn out,” Sieg says.

“It’s easy to be mindful, it’s just hard to remember to be mindful,” Sieg says. “The trick is practice until you do it.”

In addition to letting go, tuning in is another element of mindfulness. Sieg recommends nurses check in with themselves at the end of the day and focus on the positive. If it’s been a bad day, treat yourself with some compassion and dwell instead on what went well. Ask yourself, “What did I contribute today?” When we focus on the positive instead of the negative, our positive focus expands.

Other ways nurses can practice self-care is by not being a martyr. Sieg recommends nurses eat lunch, take bathroom breaks, and not commit to working too many days in a row. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” she says.

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