The Benefits of Meditation in a Rehabilitation Setting

January 16, 2015

An adjunct therapy that speeds recovery

My name is Sarah White and I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. I have worked at Helen Hayes Hospital for four and a half years, starting as a Case Manager and in 2014, jumping at the opportunity to take a position with the Psychology department as a liaison and mental health counselor. My passion has always been helping others feel their deepest emotions in a healthy, non-avoidant way, which led me to become a certified yoga teacher and meditation coach. I started practicing yoga in 2003 and quickly recognized the powerful benefits of the practice in regards to quieting the mind. A few years later, I started working with a meditation coach to learn more meditation techniques to help others learn how to manage the racing thoughts that typically accompany anxiety. I quickly knew that this ancient practice needed to be shared with anybody who was willing to observe the inner workings of their mind. I am so grateful for the support I have received from HHH staff who have encouraged me to share these techniques with our patients.

Along with the Therapeutic Recreation Department at Helen Hayes, I have been helping lead meditation groups for our inpatients and their family and friends that would like to join. This group takes place daily on the second floor from 3:30 until 4:00 pm, once therapy has ended for the day. I also have been teaching meditation twice a month to our outpatient pulmonary rehabilitation group.

The feedback from our patients has been incredible. Many patients have reported that they feel that meditating at the end of their day helps manage their pain. Others report that they are sleeping better, are able to manage their anxiety throughout the day and feel more connected to their physical body in regards to noticing where they compensate for pain.
The way I use meditation goes beyond simple relaxation techniques, although that is definitely one of the main benefits. I present meditation as brain exercise and mental energy conservation. Meditation gives us the opportunity to observe our thoughts instead of being stuck in the details of them where we tend to mentally live out hypothetical situations about our unknown future or ruminate in a past that we cannot change. More often than not, as a whole, we do not recognize our thoughts; instead we are completely absorbed in them.

When we meditate, I ask everyone to close their eyes and feel their breath. I guide everyone into really feeling the breath, the quality of it, and the different temperatures of it as it enters the nose and then leaves the nose. After we connect to the breath, we scan the body systematically from the top of our head all the way down. We plug into sensation by feeling the temperature on our skin, noticing every little noise we hear, recognizing any movement as well as light or shadows behind the eyelids. We focus on where we tend to hold onto tension, such as the shoulders, jaw, hips and hands. Lastly, we label the thoughts simply using the words “past” and “future”. It does not matter whether we are recognizing that thought exists five minutes in the future, five weeks, years or months; we label it “future” and reconnect back to the breath and the sensations of the body.

This practice is about becoming aware of where our habitual thoughts pull our attention. When we start to recognize these patterns in our thinking. this awareness has the potential to invite an opportunity to challenge old beliefs that cause us stress and furthermore create new beliefs that help us to accept an unknown future. We can then address the difference between worrying about the future versus planning.

Most of the patients and their loved ones that we counsel at Helen Hayes Hospital report feeling anxious. They are understandably concerned about what recovery is going to look like. Their uncertainties are about the possibility of making a full recovery, financial concerns, what does a new normal look like, their independence and the list goes on and on. There are so many concerns for our patients regarding what life is going to look like once they return home. All of this worry causes our patients to be mentally exhausted, on top of already often feeling physically exhausted. There are always questions that cannot be answered for our patients. Every patient is so unique in their recovery but what we do know as an interdisciplinary team is that our patients who have a positive outlook and attitude typically recover faster and better.

What we find is that right before we begin the meditation practice our participants are talkative and after the eight minute practice, typically nobody speaks quickly and when they finally do, it is about something that has emotional insight and is of great value in assessing what is causing stress. These groups have often ended up developing into support groups where our patients and their families connect to themselves and each other in really meaningful ways.

I have also lead two employee programs that include seated meditation and yoga. Employees report similar effects from these groups, stating that they feel calmer and more focused. Meditation is one of several techniques that has been on the rise in various hospital settings that utilize Integrative techniques that complement modern medicine. Simply put, this means looking at our patients as a whole person and focusing on their emotional well-being as much as their physical well-being. There are many different integrative techniques that complement modern medicine and we are fortunate that Helen Hayes continues to offer and stay open to these approaches as treating our patients is not about just simply treating their disease or illness. It is a great honor for me to offer guided meditation to our patients and employees here at Helen Hayes Hospital. I continue to educate myself by attending workshops and seminars and look forward to sharing what I continue to learn.

-Sarah J. White, LMHC
Mental Health Counselor