Prescribing Mindfulness in Clinical Settings
With so much going on around the world and in our daily lives, our brains are constantly in overdrive. Mindfulness educator and social worker Trinh Mai explores what practitioners across U of U Health and the VA are doing to help their patients and teammates take a mental break and respond courageously in these times.

s mindfulness—being open and present in the moment—a solution for a global pandemic, an earthquake, or racism? 

Not in this mindfulness educator’s wildest dreams. 

Mindfulness has helped me, however, to not kill my partner during quarantine or to beat myself up too much for not being homeschool teacher-of-the-year or an award-winning sourdough bread baker. Studies suggest mindfulness helps maintain my immunity, attention, memory and creativity, functions that are all impacted by ongoing stress. It has also been shown to reduce implicit bias, and it can help us hold the emotional discomfort to have courageous conversations about race.

But who has time for mindfulness? After working what feels like a new job each day, keeping our kids fed and alive, checking in on our elderly parents and managing our anxiety and grief, the day is gone. (Unless, of course, you’re the sourdough bread baker, which might arguably be a form of meditation.)    

Yet, shockingly, many of us are finding time. Our new Resiliency Center COVID-19 offering, Mindfulness & Compassion: Caring for Ourselves and Others During Difficult Times, is a four-hour workshop that has consistently been full. 

Perhaps we all need a mental break. A sense of peace. Think of it this way:

Mindfulness is not another thing to do. It is giving ourselves a moment to be.  

Earlier this year I spoke to the Veteran Affairs’ (VA) Whole Health Mindfulness Center, University Hospital’s social work team, and the University of Utah’s Pain Management Center for their insights about mindfulness. These are the lessons I learned.  

“Different strokes for different folks”     

It is hard to give ourselves permission to take a break from doing, solving, thinking, and worrying. Especially now. But the state of being we can enter when we meditate, also known as flow or transcendence, has been correlated with positive health indicators. We can cultivate that state through mindfulness meditation or engaging in an activity we love. Meditation allows us to access this state more readily, when you can’t head out for a run, the slopes, the garden, or a full-bodied glass of wine.  

In their sessions, University Hospital social workers guide their own brief mindfulness practices or use an app with patients. At the Pain Management Center, Drs. Caroline Kelley and Sofia Chernoff and their teams teach patients mindfulness skills in individual therapy sessions and two courses, an eight-week series on pain education and a six-week group mindfulness series (billable with HBAI codes). The VA’s Whole Health Mindfulness Center offers a large menu, from gold standards like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) to innovative programs like mindfulness and sailing or mindfulness and equine therapy. In adapting to the current normal, many of these workshops are now accessible online.

Mindfulness can help with many circumstances  

“Mindfulness is transdiagnostic,” said Dr. Brandon Yabko, licensed counseling psychologist and director of the VA’s Whole Health Mindfulness Center. Dr. Yabko stated that these practices have the power to minimize harm and improve people’s quality of life, no matter the context.  Mindfulness has helped veterans living with cancer, chronic pain, diabetes, hypertension, PTSD, depression and anxiety. During COVID-19, the center is teaching these skills to help with parenting and relationship issues. The center is extending classes to VA staff as well.  

Patricia Galbraith, LCSW, and her team of social workers and chaplains use mindfulness practices in working with people throughout University Hospital, like patients in the Burn Center’s Intensive Care Unit or patients preparing for surgery.  

Mindfulness helps us manage stress & find meaning and purpose

“Mindfulness enlivens people,” Dr. Matt Vukin, a psychiatrist at the VA and a Whole Health Center Ambassador, explained. “For folks who have become passive, hopeless and apathetic about their health, mindfulness wakes up new curiosity and participation in their healthcare.” Dr. Vukin incorporates brief grounding practices such as connecting with the breath or senses and walking meditation. These practices reduce stress reactivity and catalyze more genuine connection and conversation.  

“It also helps to enliven a busy doctor in a busy hospital,” said Dr. Vukin, who has taken Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). “You can feel a meaningful impact in a few minutes’ practice.”

At the Pain Management Center, Kelley and Chernoff teach patients mindfulness skills to regulate their attention, reduce focus on pain and diminish negative thinking. The approach can decrease reactivity to pain and the perception of pain, providing another option for relief. In addition, people also cultivate an awareness of values, or what matters most to them.

That last part might be more crucial than ever right now. Deep meaning and purpose are often discovered while navigating stressful times. We all want the mental clarity and steady heart required to show up for what matters, like taking steps toward healing COVID-19 and racism. And we want to support our communities of patients in doing the same. Meditation may not be the cure, but it is a worthy treatment.

Originally posted June of 2020


Trinh Mai

Director of Mindfulness Programming, Social Worker, Resiliency Center & Wellness & Integrative Health, University of Utah Health

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