What if you could reduce your stress level, improve your mood and generally improve your physical and mental health—without even trying to change those things directly? What if you could accomplish all of that by relaxing and accepting things the way they are right now?
It’s a tantalizing proposition, isn’t it? Chances are you feel stretched so thin that getting relief by doing less sounds almost too good to be true. And maybe a little paradoxical. But that’s part of the promise of mindfulness meditation, which helps explain why it has become so popular in recent years.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the awareness, curiosity and acceptance of the unfolding, moment-to-moment experiences of your life. It’s quite simple, really. Unfortunately, the truth is that we spend most of our time checked out and relatively mindless.
Think about it. Have you ever driven home from work on autopilot, with no particular memory of the drive? Were you completely absorbed in “movies” that were playing in your head—maybe reliving a difficult encounter with a colleague or patient? If so, then you’ve experienced mindlessness.
We’re more mindful as children, before our lives and our brains become more complex, but all of the mindfulness wiring in our brain is still there. We just need to dust it off and practice using it. That’s what meditation is for.
What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?
By training your brain to spend more time in contact with each precious moment you have, rather than disembodied and lost in fantasies and memories, mindfulness meditation literally brings you back to life. If that’s not reason enough to practice, researchers have discovered plenty of other benefits, too.
These include less stress, anxiety and emotional reactivity, as well as improved mood and increased empathy and compassion. Mindfulness meditation has even been shown to produce physical health benefits, such as improved immune system function.
Mindfulness and nursing
You can probably imagine how these benefits could help you cope with frustrations while you’re on the job, whether it’s answering the same patient’s call button for the fifth time in an hour or feeling underappreciated because of something a colleague said. It’s no coincidence that mindfulness can help keep you from burning out.
What’s great about mindfulness is that it works not by making difficult people, situations or emotions disappear, but by changing your relationship to them. When you let go of the need for your present moment to be different than it is, bad moments don’t have as much effect because you reclaim the power you need to navigate them expertly.
In other words, practicing mindfulness can help you build resilience, and research suggests that the more resilient you are, the more accomplished and hopeful you’ll feel as a nurse because you’ll know you can handle whatever comes your way.
Getting started with mindfulness meditation
If there’s a catch, this is it: Although mindfulness involves accepting what is, you’ll need to make a little effort to practice, so that you can escape the gravitational pull of mindlessness.
You’ll see more practice tips in other articles on our website, but you can get started right now by doing a status check. You can do this for one minute, or 30 minutes. Whatever you have time for is fine.
Do you feel stressed or anxious? If so, let that be OK, and explore how you can tell that you’re feeling that way, physically. Let that storytelling mind of yours fade into the background, and tune into your body instead. Do you feel tightness in your chest or abdomen? What’s your breathing like? Just be with the sensations for a bit, watching to see if they move or change, even slightly.
Or, if you feel peaceful, joyful, hopeful or even neutral, explore the sensations that accompany those states, and just “be” with them. Observe them. Savor them.
With just this simple practice, you’re beginning to reunite with the most grounded, wise, compassionate parts of you while releasing sources of unnecessary distress. Continued mindfulness practice can help you reach your full potential as a nurse—and as a person—one moment at a time.
Jim Hjort, LCSW is an executive coach, personal development trainer, mindfulness meditation teacher and psychotherapist.
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