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Graduate Student Stress: How PhD student Elli Weisbaum applies mindfulness to her research and herself

By Elli Weisbaum.

It’s a snowy evening in February, and what has brought twenty plus graduate students from the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) together isn’t a chance to get funding or present on their most recent findings. What has brought them out on this cold night is a chance to talk about the stress of being a graduate student and how mindfulness might help.

I was asked to facilitate this event because of my background in both mindfulness and research. This is the second year of my PhD studies at IMS. The focus of my research is to examine whether mindfulness practices can be effectively translated into a program for physicians to address their own well-being.

At the beginning of my PhD, I quickly realized that not only did I want to study the effects of mindfulness, but it was imperative that I apply it to myself as a graduate student. This realization came to me as I listened to peers and professors talk about the stress, isolation and even despair experienced by many graduate students as they sought to complete their degrees.

This struggle was reflected in the discussion at the IMS mentorship event on well-being. During the session we split the participants into two groups and asked them to reflect on what impacts their well-being as graduate students. Some notable themes that emerged from both groups:

  • Not being able to say “no”
  • Competitive environment
  • Judgments from colleagues & others

One statement that really stood out to me was someone asking the question “Why do we do this to ourselves?” For me this question illuminates the core of the issue. Although it may feel like we have no agency, in the end we make the choices that lead to our suffering.

So how exactly does mindfulness help us with all this? Mindfulness, to put it simply, can be seen as the skill set of learning to apply our attention to understand clearly what is happening in the present moment and how it effects us. The novel addition that mindfulness adds to attention training is that it asks the practitioner to apply attention without judgment towards themselves and others. This means actively having some kind of compassion or kindness towards yourself/others – something we are not usually asked to do in academic settings.

You might wonder how learning to pay attention to the present moment can help your stress and anxiety. The basic idea is that our minds spend a lot of time worrying about the future or replaying narratives of the past…sound familiar? This type of mind wandering is our brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) in action. As you’ve been reading this article it is likely that your mind has wandered to a worry or narrative about the future or past. Learning to have some agency or control over where and how your mind is applying attention can have a huge impact on your sense of well-being. It can also have a direct impact on sleep, focus, and interpersonal communication.

So how do you actually apply mindfulness? The good news is you can integrate it into things you are already doing throughout the day. I like to practice some foundational mindfulness techniques while I walk between classes, sit on the subway or just before I go to sleep. Below I’ve included a link to a basic activity that you can experiment with!

If you take nothing else away from this article, I’d like to leave you with one reflection from the mentorship night: just knowing that every other graduate student in the room also experiences anxiety, worry and fear was relieving for everyone present, and an excellent example of how becoming aware of what is going on (that’s mindfulness in action!) can help us right away.

If you would like to hear more about how I am applying mindfulness to my life as a graduate student, including how my Program Advisory Committee (PAC) has started using it at our meetings, you can check out my personal blog here. At the bottom of each blog post I include a different mindfulness activity.

Click here to try your own mindfulness activity.

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