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Mindfulness Improves Sleep and Reduces Stress in Healthcare Professionals

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Mindfulness – focusing on the present moment – can improve sleep, reduce stress and improve overall health. A new University of South Florida-led study helps explain why.

Researchers studied 144 nurses over two weeks to see how well they could stay focused on the present and how often they fixated on negative thoughts. The nurses completed surveys three times a day and reported their sleep quality the following morning.

The findings shed light on how mindfulness relates to emotion regulation, the way people handle stressful situations, such as a setback at work.

And they provide a clearer picture of how employees and employers can reduce work-related stress, said Claire Smith, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of psychology at USF.

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“Mindfulness is often seen as a magical cure-all for employee stress,” Smith said. “The way it’s often spoken about makes it seem as if staying grounded in and accepting of the present moment means you will never be stressed. To me, it’s crucial to add more nuance.”

That’s where the study comes in by providing insight into how the connection between mindfulness and emotion regulation affects sleep quality.

Smith’s team included three USF colleagues and two Penn State researchers. It was published recently in the journal Health Psychology.

The researchers focused on nurses due to their long, irregular hours and high-stress work environment, which often lead to sleep problems that can affect not only their health, but patient safety.

The study found that mindfulness helped the nurses experience fewer negative emotions and less rumination — repetitive negative thinking.

“For instance, if you got a negative performance review at work, you might choose to shift your focus from negative thoughts of how you have failed and are incompetent to positive thoughts of what you did right and how you can grow,” Smith said.

Smith and her co-authors believe the findings could help employers make better decisions about implementing strategies to boost their workers' health. Popular employer interventions include mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, along with yoga, meditation, tai chi and therapy. These programs have been shown to help employees manage stress and improve their overall well-being.

"Mindfulness is a hot topic, but we need to understand why it works," Smith said. "Our research is about going back to the drawing board to understand the reasons behind the benefits of mindfulness at work.”

The authors acknowledge the need for further studies to explore the best methods for reducing work-related stress and how they apply across different occupations, including more traditional office settings outside of health care.

“We hope future research on mindfulness looks at not just big-picture results like better sleep or productivity but also how it affects things like handling emotions,” Smith said. “When an intervention doesn't work, it helps us understand where the problem is stemming from. When it does work, it tells us why.”

Reference: Smith CE, Mu CX, Venetto A, Khan A, Lee S, Small BJ. Be present now, sleep well later: Mindfulness promotes sleep health via emotion regulation. Health Psychol. 2024. doi: 10.1037/hea0001373

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