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Breathing Is Underrated: Yoga Tips for Nurses

Simple, yet effective, yoga techniques can help nurses help themselves — and ultimately their patients

Sunday June 6, 2010
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Just take a deep breath. Nurses have been doling out that advice to their patients for years. Why? Because they know it works. They’ve seen how a deep breath can help patients cope with anxiety, get through painful procedures or wrap their minds around a new diagnosis.

Yet, when it comes to calming the mind and body, nurses fail to follow their own advice.

Fantastic at caring for others, they often fail miserably at caring for themselves. Nurses push their needs aside and focus their energy on patients and their families, their own spouses and children and their communities to the detriment of their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Yes, being selfless is seen as a virtue, but how helpful can nurses be if they are sleep deprived, stressed out or in physical pain? Wouldn’t taking time for themselves leave them feeling rejuvenated and make them more effective nurses, spouses or parents?
Finding time for self-care during a busy work shift is not as impossible as it sounds. Three RN yoga instructors show how to make self-care a daily routine by providing quick, simple techniques that can help nurses relax, renew and center themselves in just a few minutes without even leaving the unit.

Staying Calm in a Storm

As a former pediatric ED nurse at the University of Chicago Hospitals, Toni Scott, RN, CYT, CEO of Yogatones (www.Yogatones.net) in Chicago, is more than familiar with the stress nurses face on a daily basis.

Scott says she saw many traumatic pediatric cases come into the ED and could not fathom how adults can inflict such pain on children. “In those moments, you’re a nurse,” she says. “You really just need to get in and get going. But afterwards it’s so overwhelming.”

To counteract the effects of ED-induced adrenaline rushes, Scott began integrating yoga into her nursing shifts.

“Yoga became my resource of relief, of grounding, of getting me back to who I was,” she says.

Scott would often find herself “sneaking off” to a quiet place — the tiny room where urine dipstick tests were done was her favorite spot — to close her eyes and take some deep breaths or stretch before the next patient arrived. “That’s the great thing about it,” she says of yoga’s compatibility with nurses’ hectic schedules. “There’s not much time to get away, but you can find a hall, a bathroom or a med area and just stop.”

Once you’ve found a quiet spot, Scott recommends you pause and become aware of grounding all four corners of your feet into the floor. She says to first mentally scan your body for signs of stress or tension, stand up tall, bring your shoulders back and down toward the ground and take some slow, deep inhalations and exhalations through the nose. After a few breaths, try folding forward at the hip crease, take a few more deep breaths and slowly return to an upright position, ending with a few more deep breaths in and out.

“This should take about five minutes, if even,” says Scott, “and it will help relieve stress and get the thoughts calming down.”

If five minutes isn’t feasible, Scott suggests doing some neck rolls at the nurses station or taking a few deep breaths while waiting for the next call.

And cultivating a healthy mind and body doesn’t just benefit nurses, it’s also essential to giving quality patient care. “If I don’t take care of this body,” Scott says, “the other body I am about to receive will not get the best care.”

Pause and Effect

Air travel doesn’t have a reputation as the most relaxing experience ever created, but nurses may actually benefit from taking a page out of the preflight safety manual.
“On the airplane they say, ‘Put your oxygen mask on first,’” says Bonnie Berk, RN, MS, E-RYT, president and founder of Bonnie Berk Inc. (BonnieBerk.com) in Carlisle, Pa.

In other words, in order to help your fellow passengers in an emergency, you need to first help yourself. This concept certainly translates to nursing. “If nurses are stressed out over what is happening in their personal lives, there is no way they can be there for the patient,” she says.

To help nurses rein in stress and clear their minds, Berk recommends practicing pause breathing. To perform this technique, inhale imagining you’re filling up your whole torso like a balloon. Pause for a few seconds and notice how you are feeling, then exhale pulling your abdomen in toward the spine, pausing again on the out breath. Follow this cycle for about seven breaths. Pause breathing can easily be practiced throughout the day, and, although it’s simple, nurses can reap loads of benefits from this practice.

“You’re toning the neurological system and laying the groundwork for your neurological system to experience the world in a calm way,” Berk says.
As a result of incorporating pause breathing into their lives, Berk says nurses will experience increased mental clarity and lower their heart rates. “The breath is the tool to bring the mind into the present moment,” she explains. “Whenever you have a difficult situation, step back, and before you even try to solve it, take some deep breaths and let your mind settle. Then you’re coming from a place of clarity and you usually make better decisions.”

Mind Over Matters

Stress is much like a Whac-a-Mole game. Just when you think you’ve got it beat, it pops right back up at you. It’s simply a fact of life that can’t be avoided.

“The thing is to recognize and accept that we’re going to feel stressed, we’re going to feel nervous, it’s part of our daily lives,” says Betsy S. Murphy, RN, BSN, HN-BC, E-RYT, owner of Integrated Pathways to Healing (Yogahealthrn.com) in Northfield, Ill.
So if stress is inevitable, what’s a nurse to do? Murphy recommends a practice known as mindfulness. It may sound complex, but mindfulness is a very simple concept. Someone practicing mindfulness observes his or her thoughts, feelings and situations without judging them or labeling them as good or bad.

“Accepting things as they are as opposed to denying them or pushing them away,” she says is key to this practice as well as to coping with stress.

For example, if an exchange or encounter with a patient or colleague leaves you feeling frustrated, angry or upset, acceptance and mindfulness allow you to process the feelings and experience them so they don’t dominate you.

“Then you can walk away from it,” Murphy says. “But at least you can put it in its place as opposed to having it fester inside of you.”

This allows you to experience your emotions in a productive way rather than being overcome by them. “Every thought and feeling has its natural cycle of rising and falling away,” says Murphy. “If you get angry, you don’t stay angry. If you feel happy, you don’t stay happy.”

The simple act of getting in tune with your body and mind may reap huge rewards.
“Stopping, being present, being mindful and paying attention to what’s going on inside you can be the most beneficial practice,” she says.


Jennifer Thew, RN, BSN, MSJ is national editor for Nurse.com.Send a letter to editorNTL@gannetthg.com or post a comment below.