Mindfulness for Healthcare Workers During COVID

Accessible mindfulness practices and meditations for healthcare workers.

With heartfelt appreciation, we offer healthcare providers these practical tools for staying resilient during the stressful and uncertain days and weeks ahead. Preparing for this long engagement of healthcare service—both mentally and physically—means carving out whatever time we can to sustain ourselves.

Our hope at Mindful is to provide you with realistically accessible mindfulness practices during these physically and emotionally demanding times. The front lines for health care providers may feel overwhelming. Please use these practices freely, and often.

We wish you all health, strength, and resilience over the upcoming days.

A Mindfulness Practice for Healthcare Workers During COVID from Dr. Mark Bertin

Read the full guided practice:

First, there is no single practice that is going to change the fact that we’re all living under immense stress and anxiety right now. The intention of mindfulness is to help us develop the skills that will allow us to navigate through times just like this.

When our minds become exhausted and overwhelmed—as stressful thoughts lead to more stressful thoughts, and we get caught up in fear and anxiety (and we’re tired)— we create a mental state that has a lot of chaos to it. That’s when turning to mindfulness practice can help us settle, help us get out of all that thinking for a moment. We can try to settle down and maybe give ourselves a little rest or see a situation with a little different clarity.

A Breath Counting Practice For Stress

This is a counting practice, for those times when we’re feeling really unsettled and really off.

  1. Find yourself a comfortable posture (or you can do this standing). Pick a place you can be still for just a moment and then lower your gaze. Shut your eyes if that’s appropriate and you’re comfortable with it.
  2. Begin to recognize that there is a physical motion with each breath. Tune in to that sensation of breathing, not because we’re trying to do anything with our breath. But just because it’s always there, so it can be an anchor for your awareness. Your thoughts will continue. Recognize that. It’s okay.
  3. Come back to your breath each time you’re aware of that distraction. And back to the next breath again. Breathing in and breathing out.
  4. You can count your breaths. Counting up to seven breaths. And then if you find your way to seven, starting over with one.
    • So, breathing in, one. Breathing out, one.
    • Breathing in, two. And breathing out, two.
    • And if you lose touch with the counting, that’s fine, too, starting over wherever you last remember.
  5. For a few moments of practice, there is nothing to do, nothing to fix. And letting go of any sense of striving or trying to make yourself feel any different than you do.
    • Just breathing in and breathing out.
  6. And when you’re ready opening your eyes, bring your awareness back to the moment.

A practice like that isn’t meant to make you feel anything in particular. It’s an opportunity to carve out a few moments for yourself, to bring yourself back from all the different places your mind has gone through the day. And hopefully, a practice like that can become something intuitive, something available to you anytime you need it. as you practice, it might be something you can do for a longer stretch of time once a day.

Certainly, the bigger premise with mindfulness practice is that by practicing regularly over time, it becomes part of our life. We develop almost a trait where we can fall back on it in moments of stress. But that practice is also something you can use multiple times in the day, no matter how busy your day is. Taking seven breaths, or you can do 15 breaths, can be a way to catch a moment and bring your awareness back.

Let your brain settle for just a minute. Give yourself a little rest. Even during the busiest day, fifteen breaths usually takes about a minute.

The Stress Breath Practice

The stress breath can be used to help ground you in moments of stress or anxiety. This description of the practice comes from the Holistic Life Foundation.

The 3 Basic Elements of the Stress Breath

  1. Fog the mirror: The most important thing about this breath is that it’s audible. Take your hand and hold it up in front of your mouth and act like it’s a mirror that you’re fogging up. So, you’re exhaling with a haaaaaaaa sound as if you’re fogging a mirror.
  2. Make it audible: Now, do the same thing, but only have your mouth open for two seconds and then close your mouth while still pushing out the same way—but now push out through your nose. Practice making that same sound as you inhale, so the sound comes from the back of your throat (almost like a Darth Vadar breath). 
  3. Hold and lock: The HLF twist on the stress breath happens during the pause between the inhale and exhale. When you inhale, hold your breath, and then lower your chin to your chest. Hold there for a count of five and then lift your head as you exhale. Let’s put it all together…

The Stress Breath Practice

  1. Inhale nice and deep, using the “fog the mirror” technique, so the sound is vibrating at the back of your throat.
  2. Hold your breath and your bring your chin down to your chest.
  3. Count back from five.
  4. Exhale (audibly through your nose) while you bring your head up.
  5. That’s one cycle. Do twelve in a row, if you can, during the day and then again at nighttime.

Mindfulness for Healthcare Workers

Our minds are never really still. And in moments of uncertainty or crisis, whether in life or in a clinical setting, our minds can complicate our emotional and practical responses with thoughts that make our experiences more intense. 

In this guided loving-kindness meditation, Dr. Mark Bertin invites us to work with our thoughts. This practice strengthens our intention to notice and label whatever may arise, as a tool to anchor ourselves. While you follow along, simply recognize where your mind gets caught up in thinking about the future or the past. Quite often we get lost in thought—even while meditating. When this happens, we can use an immediate sensation or a phrase to ground ourselves again.

What to do When Thoughts Arise While Meditating

We can’t wrestle with or suppress thinking. No matter how hard we try, thoughts will always come and go. Often, they’re like trains leaving a station, Bertin says. They sweep through our minds, we hop on the train of thought, and get lost. 

Within any mindfulness practice, we can anchor our attention with something neutral, like the breath, and recognize that our thoughts are not inherently good or bad, useful or useless.

A Simple Compassion Practice

1. Find a comfortable posture for yourself. You can sit, stand, or lie down, with your gaze lowered or eyes shut.

2. Begin by offering yourself well wishes. At a comfortable pace, maybe timed with your breath, start by repeating the loving-kindness phrases to yourself.
May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live my life with ease.
You can use any variation of the phrases that works for you.

3. When your mind wanders, note or label your thoughts and bring your attention back to the phrases.

4. Let go of any sense of striving or trying to make yourself feel anything. Approach whatever your experience is right now the way you would approach that of a close friend. 

5. Continue to repeat the phrases of your choice.
May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live my life with ease.

6. Remind yourself that you deserve well wishes, no more and no less than anyone else.

7. Next, expand your awareness to the people around you. It may be people within the closest proximity to you, or your dearest friends or family members. Offer them the same well wishes.
May you all be happy, may you all be healthy, may you all live your life with ease. 

8. If you’re comfortable where you are, you can continue to offer well wishes to the people around you. If you’d like to go further, try expanding your awareness to all people, and all beings everywhere.
May all beings be happy, may all beings be healthy, may all beings live their life with ease.

9. When you’re ready you can open your eyes. 

8 Ways Healthcare Workers Can Reduce Stress

Dr. Reena Kotecha and Dr. Chris Willard offer a collection of quick tips to help other healthcare professionals rediscover moments of calm and self-care, even during a grueling work day.

  1. Breathe. Seriously, we know you’re breathing already—but checking in not only with your patients, but also with your breath, hits the reset switch on your brain and body, helping you head off the stress response. Try the 4-7-8 breath: Breathe in for a count of 4, pause for 7, then breathe out for 8.
  2. HALT. Don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry/Anxious, Lonely, or Tired. See if you can remember to check in with this quick acronym every so often, to keep your physical and mental functioning at peak capacity.
  3. Focus on the good. We know it’s hard out there. Even when it’s heartbreaking, though, don’t forget to also reflect on the day’s successes at the end of your shift—whether it’s your hospital shift or your home shift with the family.
  4. Transition. Too often, we mentally and emotionally take work home with us. To help you release this lingering stress, create a transition ritual at the end of your shift before stepping into your home space. This may be a short internal dialogue to signal to yourself that you are transitioning from work mode to home mode, or it may be grounding yourself while standing outside your front door by taking a moment to feel your feet on the step.
  5. Laugh whenever you can. Think about the things that reliably make laughter bubble up inside you. Comedy podcasts on the drive home? Your kids’ corny jokes at the dinner table? Your favorite shows on the couch? Whatever it is, let yourself savor it. Laughing keeps our brain creative and resets our nervous system.
  6. Reach in. Lean into your faith, whatever it is you have faith in. Maybe that’s the spiritual, the scientific, or a combination of both. But so many people just like you, including your ancestors, went through hard times—maybe even harder times than this—and came out stronger than ever. What resources have they leaned on to get through?
  7. Reach out. This applies when you are tired or down, but reach out when you’re up, too. You never know whose spirits you’re lifting, especially among colleagues. And even though it might feel like a thankless job, you can thank all your coworkers at the end of your shift, and thank your family and friends for their support. And if you ever forget, we all thank you.
  8. Remember, this too shall pass. It really will end: the shift, the week, the pandemic. And what will you do then? Talk with friends about the epic vacations you’ll take, or the staycations you’ll make if you don’t have the funds or energy. Research finds even planning a vacation lifts our mood and shifts our perspective.

A final tip: We know you may need to just do whatever you can to get through this time. We share this list to offer just a few ways to “disrupt” your brain and body from rewiring your nervous system for ongoing PTSD and trauma. You can always offer yourself gratitude for taking any step, no matter how small, to recenter your body and mind in the present moment. 

Other Free Resources for Healthcare Professionals:

We’ll be curating resources here specifically for healthcare workers. (If you know of anyone serving free mindfulness practices or mental health resources for healthcare workers, please let us know in the comments.)

1) The Center for Mindfulness, The Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion, and Compassion Institute

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness, The Sanford Institute, and the Compassion Institute are working together to provide daily streams and recordings of mindfulness and compassion sessions to provide resources and online support to those affected. Visit their Mindfulness and Compassion Resource page.

2) The Mindful Healthcare Collective

Mindful Healthcare Collective is a group of women physicians who are healthcare professional wellness experts. They are providing free online interactive and experiential Zoom sessions for debrief and mindfulness/compassion meditation offerings. Here’s an Awareness of Breath Practice from Dr. Ni-Cheng Liang, Executive Director Director of Pulmonary Integrative Medicine at Coastal Pulmonary Associates, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and Adviser to the UCSD Center of Mindfulness.

3) VitalTalk

VitalTalk is a nonprofit comprised of clinicians who empower clinicians to communicate about serious illnesses empathetically and effectively, enabling them to feel less burned out in the process. They’ve put together a COVID Communications Playbook to help healthcare workers handle difficult conversations that we never expected—or wanted—to have.

4) Greater Good Science Center

The Greater Good Science Center is offering a free two-day online summit to provide health professionals with science-informed strategies to enhance and transform their personal and occupational lives. Geared for physicians, nurses, therapists, psychologists, and social workers, the institute includes two half-day sessions May 2 and 3, and can help you find renewed resilience, connection, and purpose.

(We’ll be updating this section as we learn of more COVID-specific mindfulness resources for healthcare providers)

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Mindful Staff

Mindful Staff editors work on behalf of Mindful magazine and Mindful.org to write, edit and curate the best insights, information, and inspiration to help us all live more mindfully.