By Dr Kate Owen
Clinical Psychologist & Family Therapist
What Are Mirror Neurons?
Do you feel like yawning when you see someone else yawn? Do you smile if a stranger smiles at you? Do you get tears in your eyes when you see someone crying? Do you ever say “ouch” and cringe when you see somebody hurt themselves? And what if I said, “Imagine that I am cutting a lemon in half and all the sour juices are squirting everywhere, just before I take a bite”. Is your mouth watering?
This is the power of MIRROR NEURONS. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond the same whether we perform an action ourselves or whether we witness someone else perform the same action. Just like a mirror, your brain and body reflects what it sees in the environment. You might respond to reality, images from a screen, or images in your mind. Remember the juicy lemon…..my mouth is still watering!
The concept might sound simple enough, but this phenomenon has far-reaching implications. Especially for those who work in the health field. Those who are on the frontline witnessing patients and their families in distress, pain, and despair on a daily basis.
This might help nurses to appreciate why they feel stressed after a shift, or why they feel so depleted after long periods of time working in stressful environments. One possible explanation is that their brain and body is reacting, responding, and releasing chemicals as if the distressing scene in front of them is happening (on a smaller scale) to them directly.
Mirror Neurons As A Super Power
However, with everything in life, there is always more than one way to view things. As a Family Therapist, we call this the “double description”. So what could possibly be helpful about mirror neurons when working in the health field?
If you are nursing a patient and you have the ability to connect with their experience through witnessing their pain, this can assist by increasing your empathy towards the patient. With increased empathy, comes increased care and concern, which can contribute to your patient having a good experience. Never underestimate the power of empathy and connection.
Furthermore, understanding the power of mirror neurons gives you knowledge on how to influence your patients in positive ways. Just like a mirror, your patient’s neurons will also respond to what they see in front of them. Therefore, if you work hard at being relaxed, have “smiling eyes” and facial expressions that promote calm and strength, hold your body posture in confident and reassuring ways, and model taking slow and deliberate breaths, this will have a positive effect on your patients. Although they might not feel exactly the same way that you are feeling, a small subset of the same neurons will be firing and providing a small bit of relief to them.
Mirror Neurons and Self-Care
How can knowledge of mirror neurons help you as a health professional?
When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, you can consciously choose to look at images that reflect the feeling you want to shift into. Create a photo album on your phone with pictures of smiling faces. Who makes you smile when you see them? Your partner, kids, friends, or your dog? Maybe it is a celebrity that always makes you laugh? Keep these images close by for when you need to shift how you are feeling.
If you don’t have access to your phone, then remember that placing an image in the front of your mind will elicit a similar response. Try it now. Imagine your favourite person in the whole wide world looking at you and giving you the biggest smile they have. Focus on their eyes and smile in your mind. Hear their laughter. Now scan your body. How do you feel?
Positively influence your colleagues on your shift. Try challenging yourself to look at them with “smiling eyes” and taking slow deliberate breaths to see if you can subtly support them when they look busy and overwhelmed. Consider sharing this article with them and creating a culture of support in your Department.
Outside of work, proactively focus your attention on good things in your environment.
More Self-Care Tips
For those wanting more practical, simple, and effective strategies to combat stress, worry, and anxiety, then my Keep Calm Cards is an excellent resource to help regulate your central nervous system and help you think clearly at times of stress.
And sign up for my FREE self-paced self-care and protection from burnout course. My gift to say “Thank You” for all your hard work.
Nursing can be such a rewarding career, but the trick for longevity in the field and high workplace satisfaction is to look after yourself and gain knowledge on how to survive and thrive in a trauma-saturated environment. Now that you know about mirror neurons, you have more understanding of the possible impacts of witnessing distress on a daily basis, as well as understanding how you can buffer against some of that impact.
Thank you for all your hard work!
Please note that this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapeutic or professional advice.