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Mindfulness: Awareness for Stress-Reduction
January 20, 2013 - 7:51pm

Eva Lantsoght is a PhD Candidate in Structural Engineering at Delft University of Technology and blogs about academia and concrete research on PhD Talk. You can follow her on twitter at @evalantsoght.

Graduate school is a competitive, stressful and extremely demanding environment. We’re all continuously trying to live up to everybody’s expectations: our supervisors’ expectations, our perfectionism-induced expectations of ourselves, while trying to meet the demands of students, a family and friends.

To stay sane in this pressure cooker, it’s important to come back to our senses regularly and regain focus. Katy Meyers recently shared her insights on meditation. Here, we will explore mindfulness, which consists of two main elements: mindful meditation, and cultivating awareness of your thoughts and actions.

 The Origins of Mindfulness

 Mindfulness finds its roots in the East, as it is considered one of the seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhism. The idea was picked up in the West and introduced in modern clinical psychology and psychiatry in the 1970s, amongst others by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

As the practice of mindfulness was lifted from its religious connotation, researchers started to investigate the effects on mindfulness on practitioners. Stress reduction and a better sense of well-being are the best-known results of practicing mindfulness. Recent research showed a link between mindfulness practice and observed increases in regional brain gray matter density in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

 The Basic Concepts

 Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as follows:

 “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;

On purpose,
in the present moment, and
nonjudgmentally.”

The basic idea is that you bring (on purpose) your awareness to the present moment: your thoughts and your body. While doing so, you should simply relax and smile, and observe your thoughts as they pass by – without interfering, judging or commenting to yourself. Simply noticing what is actually going on inside your mind and your body is the basic concept here. It is simple, but not easy: you will notice that your mind will want to wander off.

Watch the following SlideShare presentation to get some more insights in the basic ideas of mindfulness:

[slideshare id=7718868&doc=mindfulnessstressreduction-110424015627-phpapp02]

Getting Started

 The two best exercises to get started with mindfulness meditation are the following:

1.       Body Scan exercise:

Lie down, or sit comfortably. Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Once you feel that your breathing flows naturally, start to scan your body. Bring your awareness to your toes. If you notice any tension, let it go. Then, bring your awareness to your feet, your calves, your knees, your upper legs, your thighs. Pause for a moment to focus on your abdomen while your breathing sinks deeper. Continue the exercise by bringing your awareness gradually to every part of your body, until you reach the very top of your head. Release all tension. Then, bring your awareness back to your breathing. Imagine the room around you, and bring your awareness back to the present. Then, open your eyes and enjoy the connection you just made with your body!

2.       Breathing meditation:

Set a timer for a certain amount of time (5/10/15 minutes). Close your eyes, and simply count your breaths from 1 to 10, continuously. Just try to focus on your breathing, while paying full attention to your thoughts. If your mind starts to wander, simply notice that it happened, and then gently bring your awareness back to your breathing. After our timer rings, take a moment to be thankful for the little present you just gave yourself.

A Mindful Mind

Continuous practice of mindfulness won’t cost you any time at all, it just requires you to build in a few very small breaks throughout the day. You can take cues from  your environment, such as: red lights, crossing doors, an hourly reminder on your phone or a mindfulness bell that you set to ring at certain times throughout the day. Your practice could be as little as taking three deep breaths and simply realizing these breaths are a conscious connection between your mind and your body.

At designated times during the day, you can run a quick body scan in which you identify where in your body you are feeling tension, and then let go of that tension: relax your shoulders, move your jaw to loosen it up, stretch your back…

Other ways to be more present and more aware are:

  • Genuinely relax and fully indulge when you set time aside for taking a bath or sauna,
  • Try to let go of all the “I have to…”, “Next I’m going to…” thoughts while you run or exercise, and instead enjoy the feeling of the contact between your feet and the pavement, or smell the air.
  • Take a break for your meals: don’t eat at your desk, and fully focus on the taste of your food.
  • Understand that the only moment is now. You shouldn’t feel stressed about the past or future, because that is not what is happening right now.

Make Mindfulness a Habit

Just like exercise won’t give you a healthy body overnight, you will need to make mindfulness a habit if you want to experience the long-term benefits. The best way to make your new habit stick, is by doing the following:

  1. Start small: only 5 minutes a day will make you go a long way.
  2. Have a set time: this moment could be once you wake up, after lunch, the first thing when you come home, or as part of your bedtime ritual.
  3. Experiment to see what works best for you: you might prefer guided meditations, or simply put a timer and focus on your breathing. Look in the Resources section at the bottom of this article for a list of links. On Youtube, you can find a wealth of guided exercises.
  4. Track your progress: tick off the days you’ve implemented your new habit on a calendar, or use a smartphone app such as Way of Life.

Resources

 A handful of helpful links to get you started:

Do you practice mindfulness? How has it helped you in graduate school? Do you have a favorite exercise?

 

Image by Flickr user RambergMediaImages / Creative Commons licensed

 

 

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