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How mindfulness can help Ph.D. students deal with mental health challenges

Karen Barry knew that mental health was a problem for Ph.D. students at her institution. In her role as graduate research coordinator at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, she had spoken with many students over the years who had confided in her, sharing personal stories about their struggles with stress, depression, and anxiety. But for Barry—who is also a senior lecturer in plant biology—the problem came into full focus a few years ago when a student who was a leader of the graduate student body visited her office feeling stressed and overwhelmed. “Everyone else is coming to me and telling me they’re stressed,” the Ph.D. student—a scientist—told Barry. “What can I do to help the students around me?”

Barry told the student about counseling services and other resources on campus. But the interaction also made Barry ponder what else could be done to support the mental health of Ph.D. students—a group that suffers from anxiety and depression at rates that far exceed the general population, according to a 2018 study of more than 2000 graduate students in 26 countries. She knew that researchers at her university had found that mindfulness interventions—a form of exercise for the brain—helped alleviate stress and anxiety in undergraduate medical students. That made her wonder, “Well, wouldn’t it be great to do that and see if the same strategy worked for Ph.D. students?”

The short answer: It did, according to a study of University of Tasmania Ph.D. students—78% of whom were in the sciences, health, and medical fields—that Barry and a team of mental health researchers published last year in the Journal of American College Health. Students who were given a 30-minute audio recording of guided breathing exercises and were instructed to practice them daily over the course of the 8-week trial reported reduced depression, as compared with a control group of students who were told to continue taking care of themselves using whatever strategies made up their regular routine, such as exercise, yoga, or therapy. Students in the mindfulness group also showed lower anxiety and stress at the end of the 8 weeks, but the changes weren’t statistically significant. At the same time, participants in the intervention group expressed a more positive state of mind—reporting greater hope, resilience, and confidence in their abilities. Such changes were observed even though none of the Ph.D. students in the intervention group managed to listen to the audio recording every day, as instructed.

The study was small—only 34 students were in the intervention group—and the researchers didn’t follow-up with the students to find out whether mindfulness helped them in the months or years that followed. But the results, which are consistent with other studies on mindfulness, point to an approach that may help students deal with the stresses of grad school. Lindsay Bira, an adjunct assistant research professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and a co-author of the 2018 mental health study, particularly likes that the study focused on an intervention that graduate students could realistically work into their schedules, as opposed to more intensive, course-based interventions that are the focus of many mindfulness studies. 

Barry acknowledges that more research is needed to confirm what kinds of benefits Ph.D. students may glean from mindfulness. But in the meantime, she’s encouraging graduate students at her university to try mindfulness exercises and find out whether it’s a practice that can help them. She tells students that it’s not just about alleviating depression; the practice can help develop resiliency and other positive mental abilities. She finds that this approach is effective at reaching a broader range of students, even ones who are “perhaps not ready to confront the fact that they maybe need to deal with depression.”

Exercise for the brain

At its root, mindfulness is about staying focused on what’s happening in the present moment. The goal is to retrain the brain so that the frontal lobe—the part of the brain that helps us stay calm and collected—has more control, Bira says. Then, when the person encounters an anxiety-inducing situation, the frontal lobe can kick in and prevent the emotionally reactive parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, from overreacting—allowing the person to view the reality of the situation “without trying to change it, without trying to wish it’s different, and without judging it,” Bira explains.

Barry’s study trained participants to focus on their breath—to pay attention, for instance, to what it felt like when their breath moved in and out. But other types of mindfulness—related to physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions—can be employed with the same effect, says Gaelle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School who studies mindfulness.

Desbordes first learned about mindfulness during her last year of graduate school, at a time when her relationship with her Ph.D. adviser was strained. “I felt really demoralized because I felt unsupported and devalued,” she says. “I really, really wanted to graduate, but I was losing motivation. … [My work] didn’t really mean anything to me anymore.” She spoke with friends about her struggles and one of them told her about a meditation class, which she started attending weekly. There, she learned about mindfulness and other forms of meditation, such as compassion meditation—a practice that trains meditators to have compassion for the suffering of themselves and others. After she got the hang of it, she started practicing daily at home.

“It taught me to have a little bit better control over my thought process,” she says. For instance, when she found herself brooding in negative thoughts, the practice helped her to recognize that she was doing that, to take a step back, and to not believe everything the thoughts were saying, she says. “There’s a sense of peace when we find that.” 

A common myth about mindfulness is that it’s relaxing, says Bira, who teaches mindfulness in her capacity as a practicing psychologist. The practice can be relaxing, but that may not be the case when someone is dealing with negative thoughts. “Sometimes the reality for a student might be: ‘I am sinking in this very competitive program and this is what this feels like,’” she says. “You feel like you’re not as good as other people—that you’re not worthy of being there—so self-esteem plummets; you feel symptoms of anxiety.”

Even so, it’s important to confront the reality that you’re experiencing negative emotions, Bira says. If you sweep them under the rug, they’ll fester and magnify over time. “Mindfulness is about saying, ‘OK, I am struggling with this. What are my options?’” That way, you can reach out for help—through therapy, your support network, or other means—and find a better path forward.

Bira adds that the burden to address mental health issues shouldn’t fall only on the people who are struggling; institutions have a responsibility to make changes, too. “When we talk about what the individual can do, I also think there needs to be a parallel conversation at the exact same time about the cultural expectations that might need to be … adjusted for changing times, changing student populations.” She notes that mentor training can be particularly effective because research shows that the adviser-advisee relationship is an important determinant of burnout, depression, and anxiety in graduate students. “There’s something very protective if the relationship with their mentor is strong, [if] they feel supported,” Bira says.

But for students who don’t have a strong relationship with their adviser, and for others who may be having a hard time and want to take matters into their own hands, mindfulness can be a tool to help them cope. When Desbordes graduated in 2006, the scientific study of mindfulness was still picking up steam. “Now we’re in a much better place because there is [a body] of scientific evidence about these practices,” says Desbordes—who, since graduating, has done imaging studies to figure out how mindfulness training alters activity levels in the brain. The weight of scientific evidence suggests that mindfulness is helpful for alleviating depression and anxiety, she says—with an effect that’s on par with other treatments, such as drugs and psychotherapy. “That’s great because it means that there’s now another method available, and these things can be combined.”

Bira notes that mindfulness training takes time, and changes don’t happen overnight. “When you do it once, it’s kind of like going to the gym and doing biceps curls once. You’re like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m so weak; that was not fun and now I’m going to be sore for 3 days.’” No one expects to see a bulging muscle mass after that—instead, the effect is borne out after weeks or months of regular visits to the gym. “Mindfulness is the same thing because what we’re doing is training our neurons to connect, and that doesn’t happen with just one time.”