Using Sensory Awareness to Get a Moment’s Peace

Do you have just 60 seconds to spare?

walking alone

By Taylor Rush, PhD

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So often, our lives are dictated by the urgent demands we encounter throughout the day.

For myself, I typically begin the day well-intended and try to practice what I preach to my patients: “Be sure to take a few moments for yourself. Engage in periodic self-care throughout the day.” And then by 8 a.m., after whisking kids to school, battling the death-defying morning commute and being greeting by a barrage of emails, MyChart messages and add-on patients, my good intentions become nonexistent. I get enveloped by the tasks at hand and realize after 2 p.m. that I haven’t even touched my water bottle.

The importance of self-care

Many colleagues I talk to seem to relate to this experience on some level. In the fast-paced, high-demand environment of medicine, it is easy to discount our own basic needs in order to address the needs of our patients. However, over time, this can become an unsustainable pattern of functioning.

Burnout is rampant in medicine, with upwards of 50 percent of physicians reporting symptoms of burn-out, including emotional exhaustion, high cynicism and low appraisal of personal accomplishment. This truly underlines the importance of self-care.

Why don’t we care for ourselves?

For many providers, when asked why they do not prioritize self-care, the default response is “I don’t have the time.” However, this may be fueled by the assumption that self-care requires copious amounts of time.

In fact, meaningful acts of self-care can take a mere 60 seconds. A great strategy that can be utilized is mindful sensory awareness. By directly focusing on a specific sensory aspect of our body or environment, in the present moment, without judgment, we can briefly take a break from the perpetual “what’s next…” thinking pattern.

Examples of sensory awareness include:

  • Noticing your breathing pattern
  • Observing your heart rate
  • Taking note of muscles where you typically hold tension (back, neck, jaw, etc.)
  • Observing your gait and sensations of walking
  • Eating three bites of food in a slow manner. Observe taste, texture, temperature, etc.
  • Observing the sounds you hear around you
  • Actively noticing the surroundings of your commute rather than be on “autopilot”
  • Paying attention to the sensations of the soap and water on your skin as you wash your hands
  • Mindfully listening when someone is speaking to you- paying attention to their words, intonation, and prosody, and observing their body language, rather than forming your response

To quote the meditation guru, Thich Nhat Hanh, “We will be more successful in all our endeavors if we can let go of the habit of running all the time, and take little pauses to relax and re-center ourselves. And we’ll also have a lot more joy in living.”

I hope we can all give ourselves small pauses from time to time.

Dr. Taylor Rush is a Clinical Health Psychologist in the Center for Neurological Restoration. She has completed mindfulness training at Duke’s Integrative Wellness Center and has been involved in research on the psycho-physiological effects of mindfulness interventions. She uses mindfulness interventions regularly with her patients and engages in flawed attempts with her own mindfulness practice.

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