We Can All Use a Little Mindfulness
By Megan Sumeracki
It's that time of year. Spring break is over, and we're approaching the home stretch of the school year. For many students and educators, this is one of the most stressful times of the year. I can certainly feel it myself and with my students, and I know I'm not alone. Thankfully, there has been an explosion of research out there that gives us ideas about how we can try to relieve some of the stress through mindfulness (1). The research on this topic has led me to become increasingly interested in mindfulness and purposeful self-care.
There are many different approaches to mindfulness out there, and the exact definition is sometimes hard to pin down. But, mindfulness is all about having an awareness of the present moment. When we practice mindfulness we must specifically pay attention to the things that we don't usually notice. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a training program to help increase awareness through mindfulness medication and some mindful yoga practices (2, 3). We have written about mindfulness before. In this digest, we presented resources that look at the potential benefits and pitfalls of mindfulness trainings. In this digest, we presented resources on stress and managing self-care as academics.
The research on mindfulness is not as clear cut as we might like (is it ever?), and of course more well-designed controlled research is needed (see this article). But reviews within the last couple of years (4) suggest that mindfulness-based stress reduction can lead to improvements in psychological and physiological outcomes related to anxiety and stress. Some of these studies have looked specifically at home practice (5).
Here's an example of one such study (6). Michael de Vibe and colleagues randomly assigned 288 medical students and psychology students to either intervention or control groups. In the intervention, students participated in 6 weekly sessions for 90 minutes, and a 6-hour session during week 7. They also were instructed to practice mindfulness for 30 minutes at home daily. The program included:
1. physical and mental exercises to increase participant mindfulness of experiences in the present moment,
2. didactic teaching on mindfulness, stress, stress management and mindful communication, using a course manual and CDs for home practice, and
3. a group process to facilitate reflections on practising mindfulness both at home and during class. (p. 3)
In the control group, students just participated in normal classes as usual. After the intervention, the researchers found that females in the intervention group reported lower mental distress and study stress, and higher levels of well-being. There were no significant differences on student burnout.
Of course, this study doesn't come without its problems. For example, the control group in this experiment just continued their courses as usual. On the one hand, that might be what we are doing if we don't adopt a mindfulness approach. But, on the other hand, perhaps adding any sort of active intervention might improve our well being. We could be looking at a placebo effect here. It is also interesting that, in this study, the intervention only significantly improved outcomes for females and not males. It is important to remember that this is just one study in the context of many. When we look at the overall meta analyses, the results seem promising.
Based on research like this, I often recommend deep breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness exercises to my students, and I try to practice them myself when I can to help relieve stress. I try to explain the full state of what we know: that the research is promising but we still need more work. Still, in my view, it's a pretty low-stakes thing to try to help with stress reduction if we're practicing mindfulness and relaxation ourselves at home. (Even if some of it is just a placebo effect!) And, if mindfulness isn't your thing, remember to do something for yourself to make sure you're relieving stress. Self care is essential!
(1) Crane, R. S., Brewer, J., Feldman, C., Kabat-Zinn, J., Santorelli, S. Williams, J. M. G., & Kuyken, W. (2017). What defines mindfulness-based programs? The warp and the weft. Psychological Medicine, 47, 990-999.
(2) Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1990).
(3) White, L. S. (2012). Reducing stress in school-age girls through mindful yoga. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 26, 45-56.
(4) Sharma, M., & Rush, S. E. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: A systematic review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 19, 271-286.
(5) Lloyd, A., White, R., Eames, C., & Crane, R. (2017). The utility of home-practice in mindfulness-based group interventions: A systematic review. Mindfulness. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0831-z
(6) de Vibe, M., Salhaug, I., Tyssen, R., Friborg, O., Rosenvinge, J. H., Sørlie, T., & Bjørndal, A. (2013). Mindfulness training for stress management: A randomised controlled study of medical and psychology students. BMC Medical Education, 13: 107.