The benefits of practicing mindfulness as a graduate student

by Veronica Franco, Mental Health Peer
Wednesday, January 29, 2020 9:20 AM

Do you engage in mindfulness?

A recent study links mindfulness to helping reduce symptoms of depression and increasing self-efficacy, hope, and resilience among graduate students (Barry, Woods, Martin, Stirling, & Warnecke, 2019). Graduate school comes with a long list of tasks to complete and challenges to overcome. Across the nation, grad students report being overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted. With graduate students functioning under such pressure, it is no surprise students report higher levels of anxiety and depression. In a 2019 study, Barry, Woods, Martin, Stirling, & Warnecke found graduate students were 6 times more likely to be depressed or anxious than the general population. Further, a recent University of California report also revealed that about 47% of Ph.D. students scored as “depressed” (Panger, Tyron, & Smith, 2014) when surveyed with a depression scale. These trends coupled with day-to-day stressors students face (i.e., financial stress, food insecurity, department conflict) and completion of milestones (i.e., thesis, qualifying exams, dissertation), warrant graduate students to engage in practices that can serve as protective factors for their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Thus, the idea that engaging in mindfulness can serve as a protective factor to cope through stress, anxiety, and depression as a graduate student is powerful. While mindfulness will not remove the tasks and challenges that come with being a graduate student; mindfulness can make a difference in how you cope and navigate through such stressors.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2012), mindfulness is defined as “a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” The goal of mindfulness is to create a state of awareness and relaxation that can help you become centered and grounded. When you become more intentional about ‘knowing’ about our thoughts, feelings, and motivations, you can explore ways to be “kinder, more forgiving and spacious with yourself” (Fronsdal, 2006). This is especially a great tool in graduate school as often times responsibilities, interpersonal relationships, and life events can bring up difficult thoughts about the way we perceive/talk about ourselves.

At times being a graduate student can feel like we have no time for anything but graduate school, however this is not a sustainable reality for your mental health and wellbeing. Below ​are a number of exercises in which you can practice mindfulness as well as campus resources to check out.

Examples of Mindfulness Skills in Daily Life:

Walking from A to B 

As graduate students you are often running from meeting to meeting. During these moments of walking there are ways in which you can invite awareness and non-judgmental reflection. You can transform the most mundane activity into an experience to embrace. While walking to your meeting with your advisor or to teach your discussion section, note each step.

Rather than letting your mind wander into thought patterns or processes of what must get done or what follows, draw your awareness to what you’re doing. Notice how each step feels, how the breeze touches your skin. If you’re walking past trees or water, listen to the sounds and note the colors.

Before a Big Presentation

Public speaking can make many feel intimidated, and that’s okay, it’s common. If you’re wanting to practice mindfulness to help you deal with the stress that you feel, start with some breathing. Find yourself somewhere quiet to take a moment and focus on what you’re feeling. Instead of focusing on negative thoughts, try to accept and acknowledge that this is how you’re feeling, but that it’s not who you are.

You may want to move your consciousness toward the physical sensations you are experiencing, focus on each part of your body as you let it relax. Notice how it feels as your muscles unwind and let go of your stress.

Mindful Appreciation

Start by identifying five things in your life that you appreciate. It can be absolutely anything, such as a romantic partner, the weather, the sunshine, the ocean, 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 you to practice gratitude, notice the positive moments in your day to day.

UCSB Campus Resources

Health and Wellness

Mental Health Peer Program

CAPS Group Counseling Programs

Health and Wellness

Live Health Teletherapy (​here's a GradPost article explaining this benefit for students with UC Ship insurance)

Phone Applications

Headspace (iOS and Android): Medication and mindfulness techniques with both audio practice and videos (cartoons) for learning about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

Calm: Meditation app for stress reduction: (iOS and Android). To cater to different styles. Application has three mediation options: a) 7-21 days guided meditation programs which keep track of your progress; b) unguided meditation sessions; and c) over 25 guided meditation session that last from just a couple of minutes to up to about 20 minutes.

Breathe2Relax (iOS and Android): Helps you relax and relieve stress through exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing.” It is completely free.

Article References: (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Barry, K. M., Woods, M., Martin, A., Stirling, C., & Warnecke, E. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of the effects of mindfulness practice on doctoral candidate psychological status. Journal of American College Health67(4), 299-307.

Falsafi, N. (2016). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness versus yoga: effects on depression and/or anxiety in college students. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 22(6), 483-497.

Flaherty, C. (2019). How mindfulness helps grad students. Insider Higher ED.

Panger. G., Tyron, J., & Smith, A. (2014). Graduate student happiness & wellbeing report. Berkley: University of California.

Panger. G., Tyron, J., & Smith, A. (2014). Graduate student happiness & wellbeing report. Berkley: University of California.