By: Lisa Kaler, University of Minnesota
Stress management may not be considered a sexy topic for academics to discuss, however, stress management and self-care are vital to the success of graduate students. While pursuing a graduate degree it is easy to become entangled in deadlines, competitions, epistemological debates, and other stressors that accompany advanced study and life in the academy. These stressors take a toll on the mental health of graduate students. In a survey of graduate students, nearly half of the respondents had experienced a stress related problem that impacted their emotional wellbeing or academic performance in the past year (Huyn, Quinn, Madon, & Lustig, 2006). I imagine that if you are a graduate student reading this blog post, this statistic may resonate with you. It certainly resonates with me.
I was diagnosed with Post-Partum Depression after the birth of my daughter, halfway through an accelerated master’s degree program. It wasn’t until the start of my doctoral studies later that year that I recognized the symptoms of PPD in myself and began to seek treatment. As an advocate for mental health, I believe talking about my experience is important. My goal is to demonstrate that many people experience mental health issues, and it is okay to talk about them. Therapy helped me work through the symptoms of PPD, but I continued to struggle with the stress of juggling my academic life and family obligations. The stress of school felt like a deep pool into which I was thrown, struggling every day to keep my nose above the surface as the assignments, deadlines, and readings ensnared my legs and dragged me down to the depths. As I looked around in my classes, I saw that many of my classmates appeared to be struggling in pools of their own.
Fortunately, there is a free, simple, tool that all graduate students possess that can help manage stress and improve overall quality of life. You can take it with you wherever you go, and you can use it wherever you are. I’m talking about mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is awareness that emerges when one pays attention on purpose to the present moment, in a nonjudgmental way (Munoz, Hopes, Hellman, Brunk, Bragg, & Cummins, 2018). Mindfulness meditation involves attention control, emotional regulation, and self-awareness (Tang, 2017). Neuroscience has demonstrated in a variety of studies that areas of the brain that activate during mindfulness meditative practice. If you’d like to learn more, the Tang book included in the references of this post is a great resource. Mindfulness meditation has been demonstrated to lower stress in a variety of studies and is even associated with higher levels of hope (Munoz et al., 2018). Given the high levels of stress graduate students experience, and the need to feel a little extra hope when submitting a manuscript for publication, or before you sit for your oral examination, mindfulness meditation is wonderful tool graduate students can use to feel better.
For those who have not heard of this practice, or those who have heard of it, but feel intimidated, mindfulness meditation is breathing. It is taking deliberate breaths and bringing your awareness to your breath as you allow your mind to scan itself and recognize what you have been thinking and feeling all day. Mindful.org has a very user friendly 9 step guide to mindful meditation (https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/). The first step is sitting comfortably, so don’t worry if 9 steps sounds like too many. It does not have to take long, even a three-minute session is beneficial.
Over the past year and a half, I have tried to make time every day to practice mindfulness meditation. Some days I only find one single minute to meditate. Other days, I find a couple minutes here and there. There are days I never remember to breathe; those days can be challenging. I find that I do some of my best writing in the hours following a few moments of meditation. Finding the space to clear my head and let my thoughts relax allows me to clearly focus on my writing, instead of having ideas bounce around in my brain like a pinball that never reaches its target. I have much room to improve in my practice of meditation. I hope that this post inspires someone to close their laptop or set aside their phone, close their eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Thank you for letting me share a little bit about mindfulness meditation with you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go take a few moments to take care of myself and breathe deeply.
Hyun, J. K., Quinn, B. C., Madon, T., & Lustig, S. (2006). Graduate student mental health: Needs assessment and utilization of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 47(3), 247-266.
Munoz, R. T., Hoppes, S., Hellman, C. M., Brunk, K. L., Bragg, J. E., & Cummins, C. (2018). The effects of mindfulness meditation on hope and stress. Research on Social Work Practice 28(6), 696-707. DOI: 10.1177/1049731516674319
Tang, Y-Y. (2017). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation: How the body and mind work together to change our behavior. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
Lisa Kaler studies higher education in the department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota. Her primary research interest is critically examining the experiences of college students whose disclosure of suicidal ideation/behavior elicits an intervention from their college or university. She would like to better understand how these interactions affect students and how traditional campus suicide intervention programs account for external factors, other than mental illness, that contribute to suicidal ideation and behavior among students. Lisa is the mother of a toddler, a lover of Spanish Water Dogs, a runner, and an aerial dance enthusiast.