Campus News

UW students, staff encourage practice of mindfulness to reduce stress, anxiety

UW-Madison student organizations and a University Health Services psychologist investigated benefits of mindfulness—the act of paying attention on purpose—and are spreading their findings to students, faculty and staff on campus. 

Image By: Kaitlyn Veto

Mindfulness is an up-and-coming health and wellness technique focused on reducing stress and anxiety. But what exactly does it mean to be mindful, and does it actually work?

Bob McGrath, a psychologist at University Health Services at UW-Madison, says that the term “mindfulness” has only been in common use for the past 10 to 15 years, and the practice itself has just begun to gain widespread popularity. McGrath defines mindfulness as a broader term for mentally absorbing one’s daily experience and redirecting the mind’s focus in a more conscious way toward life’s simplicities.

“It’s an interesting challenge because we’re sort of designed to not be mindful: it’s the difference between an inner voice and an inner chatter box,” McGrath said. “Mindfulness is being in the moment, gently turning off that inner chatter box and paying more attention.”

According to a 2011 Harvard study, mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. The study showed that after eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, subjects had more mass in the part of the brain that controls learning and memory, and shrinkages in the part of the brain that regulates fear, anxiety and stress. The subjects’ self-reports of stress levels following the study were consistent with the physical findings, showing that meditation also changes our perception of our feelings.

The founder of the UW-Madison Center for Healthy Minds Richie Davidson has been at the forefront of research on mindful meditation for a number of years. He says modern psychologists describe mindfulness simply as the act of paying attention on purpose and non-judgmentally. Davidson claims that a few short minutes are all that’s needed to accrue the benefits of the practice.

“It is the case that really short periods of time [in meditation] can make a difference,” Davidson said in a Wisconsin Public Radio interview in 2016. “Even less than half an hour is perfectly acceptable and can produce real change. Start with two minutes and then one can gradually build up.”

Quite a few students on campus are beginning to explore the potential value of mindfulness and the many ways it can be used to improve one’s well-being.

“Mindfulness can allow you to pause and make space for yourself to develop awareness, and that’s something that we don’t often do in our very fast-paced, crazy lives where we have lots of responsibility and are juggling 10 things at once,” said Jake Roble, president of Just Minds, a student organization that strives to connect student activists to self-care resources to prevent burnout, promote sustainable social movements and support inclusive campus culture through mindful conversation.

A UW-Madison senior majoring in neurobiology, Roble states that he has found solace in using mindfulness as a tool to cope with the demands of a full course load and two jobs. He notes, however, that having an understanding of the reason why you are seeking to become more mindful is a key component of success.

“A key facet of mindfulness is cultivating attention and being aware of the intention behind practices—whether it’s what you’re doing in your everyday life or work, or your interactions and feelings, it’s supposed to really encourage us to be aware of impact, intention and the connection between those two things,” Roble said.

UW-Madison senior Dave Platz, president of UW-Madison’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that mindfulness is an innate skill or capability for some, while it can be very difficult for others to apply and benefit from.

Platz said being mindful does not necessarily entail sitting in a corner quietly. He said that everyone has their own interpretation of mindfulness, and it is up to each person to figure out what works best for them.

“You know yourself better than anyone else, and I think a lot of us forget that,” Platz said.“You know what’s going to make you feel better, what’s going to make you succeed, and being mindful of those things is really important.”

McGrath echoed Platz’s assertion, saying that those who are trying to live a more mindful life can start out in unassuming ways.

He said one can do something as mundane as washing dishes in a mindful way by noticing the warmth of the running water, the rise of bubbles and appreciating the progression of the dish from dirty to clean.

“Meditation is only one of many opportunities you have to be mindful,” McGrath said. “It’s important that it’s your full life rather than just a moment that you’re sitting quietly.”

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