“We’re constantly living unanchored in time; the past and the future are creations of the brain.”
– David Eagleman
Mindfulness has rapidly become a global phenomenon. Research suggests that it can improve focus and self-control, reduce stress, make you happier, boost your learning ability and make you less irritable. A recent meta-analysis of 209 studies concluded that mindfulness-based interventions for depression and anxiety showed “large and clinically significant effects.” What is this thing that we call mindfulness and is it the panacea that it’s currently reported to be?
Mindfulness is an orientation to life that we practise through meditation. It’s defined as the moment-to-moment, non-judgemental awareness of thoughts, feelings and the surrounding environment which are best cultivated through the practice of meditation. The goals of mindfulness meditation are to increase awareness of mental processes and attentive listening skills, improve the ability to recognise bias and judgements and to thereby act with principles and compassion. If this sounds complicated, it should be reassuring to know that even spending your meditation time being distracted still counts. The goal is not to stop thoughts, but to observe them. That’s where the non-judgemental part comes in.
In 2015, we ran a five-week mindfulness course for students in Years 1 and 2 of the MB ChB at UoM as part of a research study. The sessions were delivered by Mary Walsh from the Counselling service, an experienced mindfulness teacher, and took place in the CSLC. Each session lasted one hour, with time at the beginning for tea and biscuits. In order to measure whether mindfulness meditation has an effect on wellbeing, we asked everyone to complete a questionnaire before the course began and again after the five-week course had ended. The questionnaires measured ‘burn out’ (the impact of continuously high levels of stress), positive mental wellbeing (or happiness) and self-confidence.
22 participants completed both questionnaires and on average attended three of the five sessions. We found that mindfulness training produced clinically significantly changes in self-confidence and well-being and reduced levels of burnout. The biggest effect we saw was on burnout which prior to the mindfulness training was present in 50% of our student sample and was reduced to 4% after completing mindfulness training.
To understand the experience of taking part in a mindfulness course as a medical student, we ran two focus groups with 7 students. Participants spoke about the overwhelming amount of pressure they experienced to keep up with the demands of the course and how difficult it was to discuss this with those around them (‘If I let myself slip up for one minute then I fall down, I forget things’). Following the mindfulness course, participants reported having a greater awareness of their thoughts and the impact these thoughts have on their behaviour and feelings (‘what you think is not actually what it is’), a sense of feeling OK (‘It’s blown the cobwebs off my brain’) and an explicit acceptance that things are sometimes stressful (‘we could kinda come together and admit these things’).
Is mindfulness a panacea? Our results suggest that it has potential. We were able to conclude that mindfulness appeared to be a helpful resource for those who took part. However, as with all research studies there were limitations; this was a small sample and it was made up of a self-selecting group. We think that mindfulness is worthy of further research and are doing just that; the next six-week mindfulness course started on 4th February at 5.15pm in the CSLC for students in years 1 and 2. Please do come along if you are interested.
For more information about mindfulness you can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or can follow us on Twitter @mindfulmedics
Sarah Shephard and Claire Mimnagh