How Mindfulness Increases Resilience To Stress
Since 2011, over two thousand Oxford University students have attended a mindfulness course specially designed by the University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC). Seventy courses have been delivered as part of the OMC’s student mindfulness programme over this time.
The OMC’s student course is based on the best-selling book “Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in Frantic World” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. The course provided the basis for the largest randomised control trial among university students to date. A follow-up paper published in September 2020 suggests that beneficial effects on students’ levels of psychological distress lasted for at least a year. Both articles provide evidence that our 8-week program increases resilience to stress.
There are 2 courses coming up for Oxford University students. Those interested in joining one of our courses this Term are invited to click here. If you are a representative or member of any other higher education establishment, and you are interested in participating in mindfulness courses, please do feel welcome to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here, a student at the University of Oxford describes what they have learnt over the course of their studies, having participated in the OMC’s student course, by answering the following question:
What is the single most important thing you have learned as a graduate student?
Every graduate student’s day is different, but I can tell you what a day as a student of theoretical chemistry—that exotic area of science that is quite vague to most—looks like. In the first half of my daily routine, I attend to the need for knowledge production. Specifically, I work to explain how birds can sense the magnetic field of the earth; a yet uncoded natural wonder that I endeavour to unravel from a theoretical perspective. As one piece in a wider network of researchers interested in this topic, I make modelled simulations of our reality through ‘pen and paper’ derivations. This means that I write predictive equations using physics and mathematics which can be translated into computer code and run on big ‘clusters’ of computing machines in the pursuit of theoretically inspired clarity. I have always been fascinated by the possibility of simulating reality with relative accuracy in order to predict new phenomena—on the scale of nanometres! After I indulge myself with these computations, I spend the second half of my day either dining in the college, catching up with friends, or, my latest hobby, salsa dancing. But not every day can be decompressed, and not every day treats me to greater clarity into the natural world. No graduate student is foreign to those days consumed by a deadline. On occasion, the prospect of running a set of simulations which I do not fully understand, but the results of which appear so imperative, overwhelms me. I sit and stare at my screen for hours without motivation, afraid that I cannot create accurate results in time. Not only this can be demoralising, my peers and I now also find ourselves unable to support each other over a cup of much needed coffee. I have been spending my quarantine stuck, reluctantly, at my parents’ home in Lithuania. It is precisely from the place where I stand that places like Oxford once seemed so mysterious, distant, and unattainable. Returning here provokes in me an anxiety about my ability to be part of knowledge production at Oxford. Time spent unproductively leads me to doubt my own work ethic, sparking a negative feedback loop of thoughts that make it harder to start work the next day.
Although such struggles are exacerbated by the pandemic, in truth, I am speaking of the difficulties of taking charge of independent research. I am sure it will be hardest to stave off the symptoms of burn-out in the months ahead of turning in my doctoral thesis, and I applaud those who are completing their research in this bizarre global moment. After various run-ins of my own with mini burnouts, days lost to self-questioning and demotivation, I decided that there must be a better way to assume the responsibilities of graduate studies. Before having my own ‘aha!’ moment, I tried almost everything the typical graduate student tries: scheduling my time differently, improving my sleep, adjusting my nutrition, exercising more, etc. No matter what I did, I would still encounter days where I felt out of rhythm and frustrated. The solution that finally helped me untangle every overwhelming day still feels too simple to be true—I accept the fact that in the moment I am struggling and that my feelings are normal. Such acceptance helps me shift my mindset and to look for ways that I can enrich my life instead of letting self-doubt control me. Sometimes this peacefulness comes about when I take a walk and let myself observe things that I had previously overlooked mindlessly, and other times when I call friends to see how they are holding up. I take those unproductive moments and welcome them as an opportunity to engage my mind differently, making it easier to return to my equations later.
Focusing on the pleasant effervescence of the present is something that I learned through mindfulness meditation practices that I started as a graduate student at Oxford. I am grateful to the amazing instructors at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre for what they have taught me. Their support aside, mindfulness demands a lot of patience and effort from the student. In short, it involves drawing your attention to different parts of the body and discovering what the mind is doing, allowing for more thorough understanding of how the mind works. One simple practice, which anyone can learn to do, is simply to focus on your breath—eyes closed for bonus points. Deceivingly straightforward, in my first week of practice I could not hold such focus for more than five seconds! This is common, the best response is to acknowledge that your mind has wandered and to return your attention back to the breath—meditation is not a zero-sum game, so being sympathetic to yourself is key.
Meditation has not only helped me learn about myself, it has also carried over into my work as a student by allowing me to stay in tune with the uneven cycles of knowledge production without cracking under the pressure of difficult days. Mindfulness has helped me to understand how the external world influences me and how I can be more happy and grateful with the scientific research I am currently doing—even when my simulations turn out not to work. Many graduate students will also occasionally experience frustration and feel that they are not able to perform. So next time that you doubt your abilities, I welcome you to be more mindful about your day, your body, your emotions, the air you breathe and the feeling of the ground under your feet. I hope other Oxford graduates will join me in learning to accept bad days and to be more mindful about life, stopping for a minute to embrace what life presents us with. We are only as free to imagine new ideas, equations and solutions as we are free from mindsets that inhibit our potential. Never has it been more important to unlock this freedom as it is now against the predicament of quarantine.
By Gediminas Jurgis Pažėra
Gediminas graduated from the University of Warwick with a BSc in Chemistry, where he ranked as one of the top students in his class. In 2020 he decided to pursue a DPhil in Theoretical Chemistry at Oxford. Through ongoing research, he works with Prof. Peter Hore and Prof. David Manalopolous to unravel the biophysical mechanisms of magnetoreception in birds and to advance the field of Spin Dynamics and Spin Chemistry. Before coming to Oxford, he worked as a research assistant to Prof. Leticia Gonzalez at the University of Vienna and applied himself to various research projects at Warwick.
When not researching, Gediminas is the event’s officer for the Quantum Information Society—which hosts a speaker series with world-leading Quantum Physicists—and the Welfare Officer of Corpus Christi College. In his free time, Gediminas competes in Dancesport representing the University of Oxford, frequently attends Salsa socials, and plays the French Horn in various orchestras and ensembles.