Mindfulness meditation is a popular topic in the media now. Research has already demonstrated the clinical benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction for patients with chronic pain or anxiety disorders. Although there’s been limited research about the benefits of mindfulness stress reduction for oncology nurses and their patients, some evidence suggests that engaging in mindfulness exercises could lead to a safer environment.

Understanding human behaviors as they relate to attention and awareness is important. So much of our human behavior is automated. Consider how often you may switch into auto-pilot as you go through your day. Have you arrived at your house after a long shift and realized you don’t remember driving through that tunnel or over that bridge you cross every day? These are examples of mindless behaviors—something psychologists recognize as the antithesis of mindfulness and attention.

Those who study mindfulness use a practice called a body scan as a means of mindfulness meditation. This practice entails shifting your focus from something large, like your entire body, to something small, like your big toe. By practicing this, many demonstrate a greater ability to focus and sustain attention. It’s been found that typically most people can sustain attention on an issue for about 10 seconds. As that time passes, our attention starts to drift, and we move into daydreams about future events or ruminate about past moments. It can be difficult to focus attention without practice and an awareness of being mindful. The unfortunate truth is that drifting attention can set up the conditions in any environment for an accident or clinical error.

James Reason, PhD, a psychologist and human safety scientist, suggested that human errors are associated with clinical errors on the part of nurses and physicians. Slips, as Reason refers to them, are associated with attentional failures, and lapses are associated with memory failure. Reason noted that “Slips and lapses . . . are almost invariably associated with some form of attentional capture, either a distraction from the immediate surroundings or preoccupation with something in the mind.”

Reason’s model suggests that conditions leading to inattention include stress, fatigue, preoccupation, and distraction. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on reducing stress, improving attention, and honing focus. Recent information correlates mindfulness meditation with improved cognitive function and the ability to switch attention between activities without losing focus and critical thinking.

Oncology nurses can practice improving mindfulness on their own, in a group setting, or with a trained instructor. Mindfulness meditation or mindfulness-based stress-reduction courses and mobile device apps are available.

We’re all human, and we’ll never be error free. But mindfulness-based stress reduction may help us understand and control the psychological conditions that lead to errors. By focusing on attention and mindfulness, nurses can help keep oncology environments free from distractions and an overabundance of stress.

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