Do you ever feel like you are moving through grad school like a busy bee? Completely on autopilot?

Externship. Clients. Supervisors. Emails. Research. Class. Professors. Assignments. Dissertation. Family. Friends.

Sometimes it can all seem like one, big blur.

As graduate students in the mental health field, we are tasked with the challenge of helping others achieve mental wellness. However, in focusing on the wellbeing of others, we often completely forget to take care of our own emotional health.

I have heard many colleagues and classmates express that they simply do not have time to pause and take care of themselves. As the old adage goes, those who do not have time for it need it the most!

Fortunately there are quick, easy and free ways to tend to your emotional health. You don’t have to go anywhere, you don’t have to do anything. Just be mindful. In fact, just BE.

Mindfulness is essentially the moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they occur – without judgment.

Some other definitions include:

  • The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment [1]
  • The non-judgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise [2].
  • Keeping one’s complete attention to the experience on a moment-to-moment basis [3].

If you are insanely busy or feeling burned out, try the following simple mindfulness techniques to relax your body, restore your mind, and bring back the balance in your life.

Mindful Breathing

“Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Oftentimes, we hold our breath when we are angry, anxious, or stressed out. While it is usually a subconscious effort to exert control, it only creates more tension and strain in the body.

During times of pressure, I have caught myself holding my breath, and many of my clients dealing with anxiety often report shallow and irregular breathing.

Mindful breathing is such a simple practice, but it’s ability to transform your life cannot be overstated. It is often the very first mindfulness technique that is learned due to the fact that it can be done anywhere at any time. Whether you are driving to externship, walking your dog or laying down in your bed, you can practice mindful breathing.

Here’s how to do it:

Start by breathing in and out very slowly. In through the nose, and out through the nose, letting the air flow effortlessly through your body. Each breath cycle should last about 8 seconds.

As you breathe, focus all of your attention on your breath. It may help to focus on the sensation of the air brushing your nostrils, or the feeling of your abdomen expanding and contracting with each breath. As you gently focus your attention, let go of any thoughts. For these few minutes, you have nowhere to go and nothing to do… just breathe.

Mindful Body Scan

“Attention to the human body brings healing and regeneration.” –Jack Kornfield

Throughout grad school I have struggled with sleep: falling asleep, staying asleep and sometimes even waking up.

I tried a number of techniques that included soft music, guided meditations and, yes, even wine…but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, I stumbled upon Yoga Nidra and body scanning. It worked like a charm.

The purpose of mindful body scanning is to limit the mind from wandering and to help you connect with your body. Research has shown that mindful body scans can significantly reduce sleep problems associated with insomnia and also can alleviate the severity of symptoms associated with depression and anxiety [4].

Mindful body scans allow you to build awareness in your body, which ultimately helps to relieve stress and tension. It’s the perfect mindfulness exercise after a long day or before falling asleep at night.

Here’s how to do it:

To begin, sit or lay down in a comfortable position and take a few moments to find a calm, steady breath.  Take a few moments to notice any general sensations in the body – tingling, burning, tightness, openness.

Slowly bring your attention to your left toes. Check in with your toes. Spend several slow breaths checking in with how they feel. Next, move your attention to your left foot, and then to your left ankle, calf, knee, thigh, all the way up to the left hip. Now, repeat through the right side.

If you notice any stiffness, tension or discomfort, simply breathe into it, imagining your breath permeating and infusing that area with relaxation.

Spend several slow breaths narrowing your attention on the pelvic region, the abdomen and the lower back, moving up through the torso and heart region. From here, gently move your attention to any sensations in the fingers, hands, wrists, up the arms, through the shoulders, neck, jaw, temples, ears, eyes, forehead, crown of the head and skull.

Pause here for a few moments. Now, take a few deep breaths and move your attention smoothly from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes, experiencing whole body awareness.

Mindful Appreciation

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” –Maya Angelou

Another word for mindful appreciation is gratitude.

Gratitude is one of my favorite ways to be mindful because it instantly changes your mood and raises you to a more positive vibration. During my third year of grad school, I began a gratitude journal (using the iPhone app Thankful) and it absolutely enhanced every aspect of my life, from relationships with family and friends, to my ability to focus and manage professional demands.

When we are going through challenging times, it can seem almost impossible to be grateful. But that is where the paradox lies. It is in the act of mindful appreciation and being grateful that we can begin to shift our perspective and overcome obstacles and challenges.

I have seen the benefits of mindful appreciation and the practice of gratitude in my own life, and I have seen it work wonders in the lives of many of my clients struggling with both physical and mental health issues. The purpose of mindful appreciation is to give thanks and to celebrate the seemingly insignificant things in life.

Here’s how to do it:

Start by identifying five things in your life that you appreciate. It can be absolutely anything, such as a romantic partner, the sunshine, a beautiful flower, or a cup of tea.

Even if you think it is insignificant, write it down anyway.

You can jot these things down in a journal, on your phone, on your laptop…anywhere.

The point is to get your gratitude juices flowing and begin to make mindful appreciation a habit.  Before you know it, you’ll be walking through life noticing the beauty in everything.

 

The wonderful thing about these mindfulness exercises is that they can be shared with clients as well. From depression to anxiety to mood and personality disorders, mindfulness has the capacity to improve overall emotional functioning and quality of life.

So, to all you busy bees out there, get busy bee-ing mindful!

References:

[1] Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144–156.[2] Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10 (2), 125-143.[3] Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation. In W. R. Miller (Ed.), Integrating spirituality into treatment: Resources for practitioners (pp. 67-84). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.[4] Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33 (6), 763-771.

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Kelsey Ball

Kelsey Ball

Kelsey Ball is currently a Clinical Psychology doctoral student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She completed a double major in Psychology and Music at the University of Virginia and has always been fascinated by human behavior. Having grown up in Bermuda, she has a particular interest in minority mental health and consistently advocates for holistic approaches to health and wellness with at-risk populations. Her training in forensic settings, schools, community mental health and private practice has provided her with a variety of clinical experiences with diverse populations. She recently defended her dissertation on cultural mistrust and attitudes towards HIV testing and looks forward to completing internship at the University of Miami Counseling Center. In her free time, Kelsey enjoys dancing, cooking and teaching violin and flute to young musicians.
Kelsey Ball