I just learned a new term: ''compassion fatigue''. This is what nurses, professional caregivers and first responders experience when they're too tired, too sad and too stressed to feel normal compassion for their patients. It's also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS) and is characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time.
Having watched many nurses in action during my parents' multiple short hospital stays for stroke and pneumonia, I've been amazed at the quality of care and comfort that most hospital staff give every day, 24/7.
I've also been amazed by the demands placed on them by a health-care system devoted to fiscal goals of corporations, which pushes doctors, nurses and aides to their limits physically, mentally and emotionally. Seeing the long hours that they work and the sheer volume of patients, the truly miraculous thing is that there are any medical professionals and caregivers left without compassion fatigue.
And indeed, nurses in particular have a higher stress rate than any other healthcare professionals. According to Medscape, high stress in the nursing profession is due to factors such as long hours, shiftwork, lack of control, inadequate structures of communication in healthcare settings, inadequate reward systems, interpersonal conflict and insufficient resources. Worse, the American Nursing Association reports a rise in physical assaults (by patients, patient families or random strangers who wander into the ER), and nonphysical violence such as verbal abuse by medical co-workers.
All this stress on the job not only leads to rapid turnover, absenteeism and burnout, but can have a devastating effect on a nurse's quality of life. Depression, sleep problems, and a disproportionately high rate of illness, stress-related disease, psychiatric admissions, and mortality are associated with the nursing profession.
So I was happy to hear that some nurses are using the Transcendental Meditation technique to lower stress levels and improve the quality of their lives both on and off the job.
At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a committee started searching for coping strategies for compassion fatigue and nursing burnout.
''We know from the literature that healthcare is complex and challenging work, and that nurses who take the time to learn coping strategies are better able to adapt and sustain a career in healthcare,'' says Jen Rheingans, PhD, RN-BC, AHN-BC, a research specialist at the hospital. ''We've also seen evidence suggesting that improving resilience among healthcare providers can diminish the effects of compassion fatigue and ultimately prevent burnout.''
Yet none of the published studies were specifically about nurses or compassion fatigue.
''We decided to pursue a pilot research study evaluating the effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique on compassion fatigue and resilience among nurses,'' says Dr. Rheingans.
Over 360 peer-reviewed research studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique demonstrate improvements in physical symptoms such as a 48 percent reduction in heart attack and stroke, relief from anxiety and depression and improvements in coping and resilience.
Senior nurses at Florida's Sarasota Memorial Hospital candidly discuss the changes to their personal lives and careers after learning the Transcendental Meditation technique, in this 14 minute video.
The results were impressive. Nurses who participated in the study found that stress was not only dramatically less on the job, but for many, health and family relationships also took a leap forward. Analysis of results revealed statistically significant improvements in resilience and compassion fatigue, and decreases in secondary trauma. Dr. Rheingans states: ''This study contributes new knowledge for an innovative strategy to improve resilience and reduce compassion fatigue and burnout among nurses.''
Monique Kunz, Clinical Practice Specialist, was transitioning to a nursing leadership position when she started TM. ''Despite having those extra stresses with my new responsibilities in leadership, I actually find that I'm less reactive to stress and I'm able to function better. On a more personal note, I've been dealing with irritable bowel syndrome for many years, and within the first month of doing TM, my symptoms were gone. Also my creative interests have increased, and I've resumed writing poetry. Overall my outlook on life is much happier.''
Gloria Rupert has been a nurse for 22 years in critical care. In her roles as administrative supervisor, manager and nurse, she sometimes felt like a juggler trying to keep many plates afloat.
Gloria relates that since starting TM, she is more focused and resilient—and able to prioritize and manage disruptions to meet the demands of her job. A persistent, decades-long problem with chronic back pain also disappeared. ''I really believe that TM has caused this change in my body because the stress in my life being so much less,'' she says.
Finally, Gloria found that her personal relationships have changed dramatically. She says, ''I have to attribute all of the changes that my friends, family and coworkers are seeing—and the calm, inner peace that I feel—to TM. Transcendental Meditation will be part of my life, twenty minutes a day, twice a day, every day for the rest of my life.''