It is 14 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and I’m pretty sure we got more than a foot of snow overnight. Given the distance between where I live and where my friends live, the inhospitable driving conditions and our clashing rotation schedules, I have found myself spending a lot of time solo. And while that might sound terrible to many an extrovert, I, a loud and proud introvert, have been enjoying the time to just meditate and, hopefully, use the time as an anxiety and stress reducer.
I can go into all the different positive benefits of meditation, though I’m sure most of you can guess what they are. Physiologic benefits include increased melatonin and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, lactate, cortisol and epinephrine, with mental benefits including stress reduction, decreased anxiety and depression, reduction in pain, improved memory and increased efficiency. Psychotherapists engage in what are known as “mindfulness practices,” with benefits ranging from self-control to increased tolerance, enhanced flexibility and emotional intelligence. These practices have shown to have such great benefits that mindfulness meditation programs have sprouted up all across the country, with one meta-analysis finding moderate evidence of improved anxiety, depression and pain eight weeks after starting a mindfulness program.
From the beginning, I learned that this is something that can’t be forced. I had to immerse myself fully. For example, when starting out, one should focus on breathing, making sure to take deep breaths in and out. The first minute seemed painfully awkward in my isolation — but after resigning myself to the fact that leaving behind my self-consciousness would be the only way to truly meditate, I realized how my deep breathing seemed to calm me down, reduce my anxiety about a thousand little things. Of course, during this time, thoughts of unfinished work, research projects and errands would pop up in my mind — but as my mindfulness meditation video instructed me, I accepted these thoughts and moved past them. As weird as it sounded the first couple of times, every single time a thought crossed my mind, I said out loud: “This is just another thought.”
Then, I began what is called the body scan technique: I began to tense up and relax different parts of my body, focusing on the sensations of that single part. Focusing on tensing and relaxing particular parts of my body helped me to forget about that chronic back ache I’d been experiencing due to my poor posture or the slightly full feeling in my stomach from one too many stale Christmas cookies. I then chose to do an exercise called “Mindful Observation,” which involves choosing an object in the natural environment (I chose a bird perched on the feeder just outside my window) and focusing my attention and energy on observing this bird — how it moved, how it looked and what I thought it was seeing — allowing myself to feel more connected with nature. The last exercise I chose to do was one that I continued throughout my day — mindful awareness. It is as simple as it sounds, which is to be more aware of simple daily tasks and the results they achieve — both concrete, such as opening a door, and abstract, such as choosing to label negative thoughts as unhelpful and release the negativity.
Do I think that mindful meditation has helped me? I think the act of putting aside twenty minutes to focus on myself and refuse to let my worries of work and school dictate my existence was certainly a good thing. I don’t know if I feel any different and I guess a weekend’s worth of twenty-minutes-a-day meditation will not change my life in the long run. However, this is a practice that I’d like to incorporate into my life more often, particularly the mindful awareness and the ability to identify negative emotions and thoughts as unhelpful, and discard them. I’ve always had a bad habit of ruminating on past failures and present worries, and I hope that by applying this thought as best I can, I can be a better student, doctor and person.
Most of my articles bear a similar theme: Find activity, do activity, discuss what I learned from the activity and my recommendations for whether or not my readers should pursue said activity. This one is different. Mindful meditation isn’t just a practice I sought with the intention of writing an article about it or convincing people to try it just once.I hope to become someone who can handle change and uncertainty without fearing it, and I believe that mindful meditation is a step in the right direction. I know I’m not alone in going through the stressors of medical school, and I’m sure there are other third years who wonder if they’re handling the stress and the uncertainty worse than their peers, just as I always have. I hope that for those of you feeling that way, you’ll consider mindful meditation, at least just once. And for those of you who don’t feel that way, try some meditation anyway. It may surprise you.
Keep calm and stay warm!
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.