Taking several deep breaths while washing your hands can relieve stress and lift your spirits. So can reflecting on something positive in your life, or pausing for a moment to think when the phone rings instead of rushing to answer it. A growing body of evidence shows that practicing mindfulness strategies like these can help people feel less anxious and perform better at school and on the job.
Ongoing research with medical professionals and students examines the effects of mindfulness practices on health care practitioners’ stress levels, wellbeing, job satisfaction and care of patients. This fall, senior nursing students at UVM are participating in a stress management and resiliency study incorporating stress awareness training, coping exercises, elaborations on neuroscience and motivational strategies for behavioral changes that promote resiliency. The researchers are CNHS nursing instructor Lili Martin, who is pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice at UVM, and Jane Nathan, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the UVM Larner College of Medicine.
“Nursing students and nurses experience a lot of stress and anxiety that can impact their academic studies and patient care. The literature supports that this is happening nationwide,” said Martin. “As a nurse, I see first-hand that self-care is very important. My goal is to implement self-care techniques with students before they enter the workforce.”
Evidence links chronic stress to difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, muscle tightness, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance and suppressed immune function. For health care professionals, the list also includes decreased empathy for patients and compromised quality of care. Practicing mindfulness helps reduce anxiety when unexpected events occur and increases the ability to listen with focused attention.
“We are looking at the effects of stress management training on nursing students at various points in their academic journey, from the fall of their senior year, in the spring before taking their board exams, and before they start their jobs. We will look to see how they use mindfulness techniques themselves and with their patients, and how it relates to their personal health and wellbeing,” Martin said.
Martin's and Nathan’s research project follows multiple studies spearheaded by Nathan with resident physicians, medical students at UVM Larner College of Medicine and with health care professionals and individuals with chronic conditions from the UVM medical community. Those studies showed strong links between mindfulness practice, improved sleep and reduced anxiety, perceived stress, pain and depression symptoms.
“This research is based on neurobiology and mind-body psychology literature. We teach the neuroscience behind it and show health care students and providers strategies to guide themselves and their patients,” said Nathan. “They learn relaxation strategies, how to recognize their own stress triggers and reactions and make decisions about how to respond, rather than react.”
The takeaway for everyone: “Enjoy the walk from the parking lot to the classroom or work place, practice mindful breathing and shift from complaining to finding a silver lining. These practices biochemically alter us,” Nathan said.
Martin and Nathan’s study with nursing students is supported by a scholarship from the Frymoyer Fund for Medical Education, which invests in research and teaching that emphasizes the art of patient care.