Resolving to be more Mindful about Mindfulness
By Seeta Spence Banfield, BSN, SRNA
I still remember my first clinical day. I arrived long before my case started to get scrubbed in, check my machine, and set up for the day ahead. I had looked up my case and prepared for it the night before. Up to that point, I had a chance to hone both my knowledge and skills of anesthesia. However, I don’t believe I put conscious thought into how the operating room environment would make me feel and the extreme stimulation I would face in the coming hours. While taking in this very new environment, I was still expected to perform skills and answer complex questions from my preceptors. As is, this can be a very exhausting and tumultuous time for students. Now add the experience of an unprecedented pandemic, an election year, and civil unrest within our country. There’s a perfect storm of imbalance in what is already a relatively tricky situation. One thing that I have found to help me navigate this is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is knowing what’s happening in your head at any moment, without getting carried away with it4. The ability to be mindful of a situation is seeing the whole picture without getting swept away in its minutiae. This is often easier said than done. With the many tasks and expectations students manage, it can be challenging to cultivate a mindfulness practice. However, as we transition into the new year and leave 2020 behind, I resolve to become more mindful with my anesthesia practice.
As students, we cannot always control our situation, educational or otherwise. However, we do have the ability to change how we perceive them. Mindfulness can provide a framework to help us further process what we experience daily. This allows us to buffer our reactions and think consciously about how we let people, situations, and events affect us. When we consciously consider our educational experiences, both in the classroom and in the clinical environment, we can use them to our advantage to help us improve and become better anesthesia providers.
Mindfulness has also been associated with many other positive effects, including reduced stress, boosted working memory, improved focus, diminished emotional reactivity, and cognitive flexibility3. In fact, in a 2011 Harvard study, researchers found that participants that completed an eight-week mindfulness program had significant increases in grey matter density1. They found that our brains appear to change when we implement mindfulness into our routines. This has become the basis for why mindfulness has been implemented as a treatment strategy for some pathologic processes such as dementia, fibromyalgia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even irritable bowel disease5.
What does Mindfulness look like?
Admittedly, my mindfulness practice has been sporadic. Typically, it’s the two minutes I spend in my car before walking into my clinical site. I take a deep breath, focus on how I feel about the day, and then let the deep breath go. This breathing pattern is rinsed and repeated throughout the day, as I feel myself getting nervous or anxious. Sometimes, after clinical, I’ll enlist the help of an app on my phone to help organize my thoughts or journal things that I felt were significant throughout my day. Implementing mindfulness helps me think critically about my clinical performance and identify experiences that I need to help me become a better anesthesia provider. My personal goal in the new year is to find a way to adapt my current routine to include a conscious meditation practice twice a week. I believe that the addition of an intended mediation period will help me continue to develop this mindfulness mindset.
However, I recognize that my novice experience with mindfulness is just a snapshot of how mindfulness looks in the anesthesia setting. Many anesthesia students are implementing mindfulness techniques to help them gain perspective about clinical, prepare for difficult test days, and even manage their anxiety. Below are a few ways students are implementing mindfulness into their anesthesia practice.
- Kelsey Gerhart, SRNA from the University of Minnesota, utilizes meditation and rhythmic breathing. She practices mindfulness through meditation. Her meditation practice helps her become aware of the present and pay attention to her thoughts. The rhythmic breathing provides her a chance to refocus. She has noticed that it has lowered her anxiety during clinical and even helps her get better sleep at night.
- Juan Aliaga, SRNA from Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Clinic, takes a minute for mindfulness by closing his eyes, focusing on his breathing, and listening to the sounds around him. He states that it helps him concentrate when he feels overwhelmed. Taking small breaks to help reset helps him continue to push forward with the task at hand. Sometimes he even visualizes what his clinical days may look like and runs through the actions the night before.
- Niki McFarland, SRNA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, was a resilience educator for the Army and the University of Pennsylvania before her matriculation into her program. She shares that she utilizes an app-based mindfulness program in conjunction with grounding. Grounding, she explains, helps you ground yourself to a moment. Grounding practice involves consciously naming three things you hear, feel, and see.
- Alex Corbitt, SRNA from Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago, utilizes another grounding technique that involves thinking of 5 things he can see, four he can hear, three he can feel, and two he can smell. He follows this practice up with a deep cleansing breath.
- Nicholas Mangan, SRNA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, was so passionate about mindfulness that he implemented a program for students at his school. His doctoral project studied an 8-week mindfulness program and its effects on perceived stress reduction and overall well-being.
Where can I look for resources to help build a Mindfulness Practice?
Starting and maintaining new habits can be challenging. Luckily, mindfulness has become more widely recognized and utilized, which has made resources more abundant. Resources available to you can depend on your location, school, and even your situation. I use some of the resources available free to students at my school in conjunction with a mobile app on my phone. Additionally, the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists provides members with resources on their member portal. They even have sections that focus on wellness for students6 and wellness in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic2.
It appears that the benefits of mindfulness are many. In fact, some discuss mindfulness and meditation as the next wellness frontier. Becoming more mindful about mindfulness in our daily routines can help us become stronger students. No matter where you are in your mindfulness journey, I hope you join me and resolve to consciously give a little time back to yourself to reset and recharge in 2021.
- Congleton, C., Holzel, B.K., & Lazar, S.W. Mindfulness can literally change your brain. Harvard Business Review. 2015 Jan 8. https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain
- COVID-19 well-being. American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. https://www.aana.com/aana-covid-19-resources/covid-19-well-being. Accessed November 21, 2020.
- Davis, D.M. & Hayes, J.A. What are the benefits of mindfulness. Monitor on Psychology. 2012 August; 43(7); 64. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
- Harris, D., Davis, K., & Alexander, K. Why mindfulness is a superpower: An animation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6T02g5hnT4. Published December 7, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2020.
- Powell, A. Researchers study how it seems to change the brain in depressed patients. The Harvard Gazette. 2018 Apr 9. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/
- Student wellness. American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. https://www.aana.com/membership/students/student-wellness. Accessed November 21, 2020.