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To Feel Great, Meditate

Mindfulness is a great way to beat stress—and easier than you think to work into your day

From lab work, to research, dissertation writing, socialization, personal responsibilities, and life in general, graduate students have a lot to juggle—and a lot of stress to manage. Moreover, that stress isn’t just in your head, it lives in your body and can make performing more challenging in every area of life. Trying to force yourself “to relax” won’t make the tension go away and may actually increase it.

Doctors Emily and Amelia Nagoski, twin sisters and authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, explain in a TED interview that stress is an evolutionary cycle in which you perceive a threat, react, and then, your body gets the signal that the threat has passed and it’s okay to relax. In the case of graduate school, though, “threats” like workload, potential success, potential failure, and work-life imbalance are ever present. How, then, can you let your body and mind know that the coast is clear?

Amanda Ayers, director of Harvard’s David S. Rosenthal Center for Wellness and Health Promotion, says that meditation and mindfulness can be exits off the stress superhighway. “Meditation is the formal practice of paying attention to your breath or some other kind of anchor, something that’s either going on inside you or around you or focusing on words or a mantra. But it’s really about when you notice that your mind wanders, bringing it back to the present moment,” Ayers says. “And mindfulness is what we hope grows out of that formal practice.”

It’s well worth visiting the Center for Wellness for any of their meditation and mindfulness classes and workshops—many of which are free or discounted for those who have paid the Student Health Fee. In the meantime, it’s useful to have a few practices that you can do on your own to refocus your mind and let go of some tension. Here are six ways to cultivate mindfulness and/or reduce stress every day.

1. Meditate for one minute.

Meditation is a skill, and there’s no one right way to do it. “I always teach that consistency is more important than length of time,” says Ayers. “You could meditate one minute every day for the rest of your life—I think that is awesome. Better than once a month for thirty minutes.  It’s about building a skill. No one is born a perfect meditator.” 

Stand up at your desk, step outside, hide in a bathroom just for one minute to meditate and bring yourself back into your body. As you build your mindfulness muscle you can lengthen or change your practice in whatever way fits your needs.

2. Breathe.

We’ve all taken deep breaths to calm down, so why not use breath to center ourselves? Breathing exercises take your focus off of the many things you have to do. Best of all, you can do them anywhere. 

An easy to remember exercise is box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four, and repeat as much as needed. Another is the four-seven-eight method: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, and out for eight. “When we start to breathe out a little bit longer than we breathe in, we start to kind of engage that parasympathetic nervous system in our bodies and start to turn off that fight-or-flight response,” says Ayers.

3. Connect with nature.

Hug your pet. Look out a window. Google landscapes. If you can take a moment to go outside, especially now that spring is here, even better. Interacting with nature—even just looking at pictures of it—can lower blood pressure and ease stress symptoms

4. Do something that brings you joy.

Listen to one of your favorite songs or cook your favorite meal. Watch a cat video or two. Maybe you enjoy cleaning your car or reorganizing your pantry. Whatever you do, be present in the moment and give yourself the space to live in that joy. And if you’re unsure of what brings you joy, take that as a sign it’s time to try something new and figure out what makes you happy. “You have to experiment with yourself and find out what is nourishing to you,” says Ayers.

5. Use your body.

Enjoy a good workout? Great, but physical activity doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the gym. Take a quick walk, stretch, or just tense all of your muscles and hold your breath for a count of 10. “Even that little bit of using your body communicates to it that it is now a safe place for you to be. You have to separate dealing with the stress from dealing with the thing that caused the stress,” says Emily Nagoski.

6. Connect with someone.

Call your mom for fifteen minutes, or your best friend, or your partner. Give someone you care about a long hug. Compliment a stranger on their cool shoes. Not only does this benefit your wellness, but it also benefits theirs as well. Humans are social creatures, but we’re the loneliest we’ve ever been

“We recognize in our office, because we come from a public health lens, there are systems and policies and structures in place that make it hard to care for yourself a lot of times. And so, we talk about it in a way of ‘how are you caring for yourself or nourishing yourself and others?’ to really bring in the community aspect of care as well,” says Ayers. “Because it can’t just be a bunch of individuals caring for themselves. We live in community, and we are built for connection.” 

Many of us don’t have practice in using our mindfulness muscle and are uncomfortable spending time with ourselves in meditative moments. And it can be a challenge for busy graduate students to make time for wellness. But we all deserve the space and the grace needed to take care of ourselves. Take a meditation break the next time you’re not working through lunch. Look into wellness resources that are in your community, on- or off-campus, or, since our phones are always on us anyway, find a meditation app, like Headspace or Ten Percent Happier. Whatever works for you, stick with it. Over time you’ll see the difference in your work, your happiness, and your health.

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