Lack of sleep, hours of sitting, poor eating habits. Are we even remembering to breathe? Being a student or early career professional is an intense experience that affects the physical and mental health of many of us. This is my first column as a new member of the SECAC team, so I thought I would focus on something familiar. I have waded in the “stress soup” along with you. And, I have done so despite my background as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). Shouldn’t I have known better as a health professional? I’ve discovered during my health communication-focused doctoral program that I needed even more tools than what the RDN credential afforded me.
Let’s face it. We are in a near constant state of examination (whether we are the examined or the examiner), trying to prove ourselves to an often-tough crowd. Understandably, the result may be moments of self-flagellation and emotional over-reactivity, such as [insert those commonly experienced by you here]. These experiences and reactions can take a toll on our minds and bodies. I think that it’s easy to say, “This too shall pass,” but the reality is that the student and early career period of our lives is not an acute state of being. It is chronic. With that may come the negative health effects of chronic distress (e.g., headaches, problems sleeping, high blood pressure, shifts in appetite, depression, anxiety). How we react under pressure also affects the quality of our work and how we are perceived by our mentors and peers.
What I’d like to explore with you is the following:
How can we take care of ourselves and not lose our academic edge?
One helpful approach may be mindfulness.
“Mainstream mindfulness,” to borrow from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin, the father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is a particularly hot topic right now in the United States (my home). According to the concise definition presented by the trade journal Psychology Today:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.
If you are interested in learning about MBSR, I encourage you to watch a 3-minute video on the U of Massachusetts Medical School website. The video presents an introduction to MBSR and some of the scientific evidence supporting the benefits.
In more recent years, mainstream mindfulness has flowed into the field of nutrition (where I first learned about it), professional sports, the military, and the corporate world, among other areas. Because my time with you is limited and I’m merely a student of mindfulness practices*, I’d like to stay on the surface by closing with the potential overall health and academic benefits of mindfulness as I see it. For example, by practicing mindfulness:
· We may be more creative.
· We may see an issue/the other side of an issue more clearly, allowing us to respond more carefully rather than emotionally (over)react (e.g., in anger, disgust, frustration, sadness).
· We may release ourselves from writers’ block.
· We may be more compassionate and revel in others academic successes as well as our own, promoting a positive working environment.
· We may be more open to our interconnectedness as communication scholars.
· We may inhale and exhale deeply more often, promoting relaxation.
· We may realize we’re not hungry for food but for rest (or some other need), which may help us maintain/attain a healthy weight.
These are just a handful of my ideas about how mindfulness may benefit us in academia. Please email me with YOUR ideas about other ways we can take care of ourselves without losing our academic edge: firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about me at my website and connect with me on Twitter @Camunicates.
*I’ve been using the 10% Happier app since reading a review in the trade journal Food & Nutrition, but there are other ways to get started!