The nurses gather in a group, speaking of the tension and emotional exhaustion that can stem from caring for patients. When they finish, Caroline Sánchez ’14, an MSN graduate, hands each a plastic circle. Uplifting music begins to play as she leads them through a series of rhythmic dance movements. Swiveling their hips, the nurses erupt in silliness and laughter. They are hula hooping—a practice Sánchez says can help decrease and prevent burnout and compassion fatigue.

Sánchez was leading healthcare professionals in a session at the American Holistic Nurses Association 2014 retreat, aimed at demonstrating the importance of self-care. On the surface, hula hooping might seem like nothing more than a child’s game, but that may be what makes hula hooping such an innovative approach to treating caregiver stress. Indeed, engaging in playful activities that have no particular purpose other than cultivating joy fosters self-expression, a sense of comfort and release, and mindfulness. Such benefits can be especially useful in coping with the physical and emotional stress of caring for patients—a problem known as compassion fatigue.

Hoop Dancing Dreams

Sánchez is no stranger to burnout. As an oncology nurse, she worked for years in a high-stress environment before pursuing her MSN at Walden to help bolster her professional skills and facilitate her love of teaching. In fact, it was during a much-needed break from work that she discovered the self-care potential of hula hooping.

“I was walking in Central Park and saw a man playing bongo drums and handing out hula hoops,” she explains. “I watched tourists attempting to keep the hula hoops on their waists, while erupting in laughter and joy. It was incredibly profound.” Soon, she bought her own hoop and began her own self-care practice of hoop dancing—one that she found to be a powerful calming outlet after long days of caring for patients.


Students watched Caroline Sánchez hoop dance at the American Holistic Nurses Association 2014 retreat. Photo credit: Shelby Samonte.

That practice became public when Sánchez decided to focus on hoop dancing for her master’s capstone project. “I wanted to speak about interventions that may decrease burnout and compassion fatigue among nurses, but I wasn’t sure whether hoop dancing would be too eccentric,” she says. Sánchez found strong support from her faculty advisor, Dr. Anna Valdez and her preceptor at the University of California, San Diego, Lori Johnson ’12, also an MSN alumna.

“Dr. Valdez encouraged me to spotlight something innovative in my thesis and Lori created a safe space for me to share my message,” Sánchez explains. Her project well received that she co-published an article about her capstone project in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Emergency Nursing with Dr. Valdez and Johnson.

Today, Sánchez has made it her life’s work to guide healthcare professionals to engage in self-care practices. Sánchez, who works as a nurse case manager at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla continues to share her love of hula hooping with others, including fellow nurses and women in her community through classes, workshops, and performances as part of her business The Hula Hoop Girl.

The feedback she has received continues to motivate her. “Hula hooping helps people feel more connected to their bodies and allows them to truly dance in the center of their joy,” she says. “Through my workshops, nurses begin to realize how incredibly important it is advocate for self-care through joy replenishment.” —Jessica Cerretani

Watch this video to learn how you can implement some of Sánchez’s practices into your work and visit The Hula Hoop Girl to learn more.

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