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Real research: Andrew Harris studies the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in practicing mindfulness

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Andrew Harris.
Photo by Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing

Andrew Harris started practicing meditation while he was living in South Korea and teaching elementary school English.

“I went to a Buddhist temple where they had English-led meditation sessions for foreigners,” Harris said. “That happens to be where I started doing meditation, but you don’t have to believe anything Buddhist to practice mindfulness.”

Harris describes mindfulness as the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment and says the term extends beyond meditation to include practices such as yoga, tai chi, journaling and guided imagery.

The recent VCU School of Nursing graduate studied the barriers and facilitators health care professionals face in maintaining a mindfulness practice for his Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project. Through the project, Harris surveyed health care professional students who had taken a VCU class on mindfulness within the past year. His study aimed to discover how, or if, class participants continued to practice mindfulness after the conclusion of the course, with a particular focus on barriers they encountered and the methods they used to achieve success.

“I always thought research was something I would never want to do, but I had already done so many things in nursing school that I hadn’t thought I was capable of doing before that I thought, why not try to tackle something else that I hadn’t done before and see if I could pull it off,” Harris said.

 

Searching for common themes

It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.

Harris worked with VCU School of Nursing assistant professor Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., and Ph.D. student Sarah Braun to create a survey that he sent to previous class participants. He also conducted phone interviews with a portion of the survey respondents. The bulk of Harris’ research involved sifting through survey and interview responses to find similar answers, which the team then categorized into answer themes.

“The answer themes were the objective results that we got from the subjective replies,” Harris said.

His research showed that health care providers view mindfulness as a lifestyle or a discrete tool.

“People are more likely to have a hard time using mindfulness when they approach it just as a tool,” Harris said. “It is more successful when people weave it into their lives as a habit.”

 

A personal approach

For Harris, who participated in the VCU mindfulness course led by Kinser before starting the project, mindfulness is both a lifestyle choice and a tool that he uses to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I take medication for it and work out, but meditation is also one of the best things you can do for your brain beside sleeping, eating well and exercising,” Harris said.

After graduating in December, Harris started working as a nurse at VCU Medical Center’s Acute Care Oncology Unit. He weaves mindfulness practices into his life as a nurse, including sometimes stopping for a few moments to collect himself before meeting with a patient.

“I’ll stop in front of the door, take a deep breath, listen to the hum of the hospital around me and just take a timeout before I go into the room, because when I’m in the room with the patient, that is a special time and I want to be completely focused on the patient and how to care for them appropriately,” Harris said.

He hopes his research will encourage nurses and other health care professionals to practice mindfulness in their daily lives to help them care for patients and cope with occupational stress.

“A lot of people think you have to go to a mountain retreat and meditate for eight hours a day with candles and incense,” Harris said. “It’s really not like that. It’s just stopping to be in the present moment.”

 

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