PhD students are six times more likely to experience depression or anxiety than the general population — that’s what a recent survey of over 2,000 graduate students found. To those of us currently on our PhD journey, perhaps this won’t come as a surprise.
Doctoral programs can be isolating and leave students feeling disconnected from the end-users of their research. Graduate students are subject to tough criticism on all sides, whether it be from advisors, the review process, or examiners. And the stress doesn’t let up upon graduation. The competition for entry-level academic roles has intensified, with positions becoming few and far between around the globe.
In light of these pressures, it’s hardly any wonder that doctoral programs are taking such a toll on mental health. But what can students do to avoid coming down with the PhD blues?
Well, new findings suggest that a solution may lie in the simple everyday practice of mindfulness.
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What is Mindfulness?
The word ‘mindfulness’ gets thrown around a lot. If you’re anything like me, perhaps the word conjures up images of robed monks tossing out all their possessions and humming on a mountain top.
But what exactly is mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is a state characterised by non-judgmental awareness and experience of the present moment.
Let’s break that down.
First off, most tend to think of mindfulness as a state. This means that the experience is a temporary condition. While some people may find it easier to slip into a state of mindfulness (suggestive of high trait mindfulness), most can develop the skill of mindfulness with a bit of practice.
Secondly, those who are experiencing a state of mindfulness are directing their attention to an experience in the present moment. Put simply, this means that you are focusing on one of your five senses.
As an example, ask yourself the following question: What do you typically think about when you’re driving to campus?
Is it the feeling of the steering wheel beneath your palms? The red hue of the traffic lights?
Chances are, you’re thinking about what you’ll do when you reach the office or belting out a pop song as you avoid making eye contact with the guy behind you.
Someone driving mindfully, on the other hand, would be observing the vibrations of the car, enjoying the scent of their new air freshener, or noticing the colours of the cars around them. The difference is that when you’re doing something mindfully, secondary activities (e.g. singing badly) take a back seat. When thoughts begin to wander, attention is brought back to an experience in the present moment, such as a sensation, smell, or sight.
Now, a common misconception about mindfulness is that if your mind wanders, you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t true, and it’s why the third aspect of mindfulness — the non-judgmental part — is so important.
It is perfectly natural for our minds to wander when we’re practising mindfulness, and it’s important not to be critical of ourselves when they do. The trick is to simply observe that your mind has wandered away from the present moment and not get hung up on the content of your thoughts. Instead, you return your attention to one of those five senses we talked about.
Sounds simple enough, right?
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Practising Mindfulness Will Make You a Happier, More Productive PhD Student
Mindfulness has been shown to enhance mood, positive coping behaviours and self-confidence, as well as feelings of hope and resilience. It’s also been shown to improve quality of sleep, and who doesn’t feel happier after a good night’s rest?
Health studies have also found that mindfulness can reduce depression, anxiety and stress (indicated by cortisol levels) while strengthening the body’s immune response.
So, practising mindfulness can help you combat the PhD blues and guard you against physical and mental illness. But how will it make you more productive?
Early findings suggest that mindfulness may offer a professional boost in a host of different ways. For instance, some suggest that mindfulness can improve concentration, interpersonal functioning, and allow you to recognise opportunities in your environment better.
When we drill down, the evidence is clear. When you practise focusing attention through mindfulness, you’re training your brain to focus better when you’re on-task.
Daily Mindfulness for Students
Now, I already know what you’re thinking.
“That all sounds nice. But my advisor wants to see my revisions by tomorrow, and I’ve eaten nothing but instant noodles for a week.”
I get it. You don’t have time, and you’ve got bigger things on your plate.
But here’s the good news.
Weaving moments of mindfulness into your existing schedule can actually be pretty easy and doesn’t need to take up time.
Here are a few suggestions to get started:
- Mindfully drink your first coffee of the day. Smell the aroma.
- Feel the warmth of the mug and the brew on your tongue.
- When you’re in the office, pause and notice the sounds around you — the tapping of keys, the clicking of your mouse.
- Take a mindful lunch break.
- Eat in silence and appreciate the textures and flavours of your food.
- Bathroom routines are great opportunities for mindfulness.
- When you get home at the end of the day, pay attention to how soaps and washcloths feel against your skin.
More Mindfulness Resources for Students
Not feeling terribly zen?
That’s okay. Here are some more resources to get you on your mindful way.
Try Insight Timer for a library of free meditations or apps like Calm or Headspace, both of which offer free trials.
You’ll find plenty of books on the market, offering suggestions for integrating mindfulness into your routine. 10-Minute Mindfulness and Practicing Mindfulness are great ones to start with, and both are available to purchase as audiobooks (for if you’re super busy).
Group Meditation Classes
Try searching the programs of your local health clubs and recreation centres. Many cities have groups that meet up to do mindfulness meditations under the guidance of an instructor.
Remember, any experience that activates one of your five senses is an opportunity to carve out a mindful moment in your day. Try identifying one or two opportunities for a mindful moment and let us know how you get on in the comments!
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