I started practicing mindfulness and meditation exercises when I was 11 years old, though at the time I didn’t know that was what these activities were called.
I was part of a group of kids in middle school that met with a counselor every few weeks to discuss our concerns about the school at large and occasionally, learn stress-reducing techniques like counting the breath and contracting/relaxing the muscles.
People are impressed when I tell them this fact. “Wow! Your school taught you mindfulness? My doctors/teachers/parents/guardians/friends just ignored my issues/forced me on meds/told me to stop being dramatic!”
Here’s the thing though: We were encouraged to join this group because “middle school just causes stress!” Or because we were “anxious kids.” Or because we were “sensitive.” In other words, we internalized our emotional experiences as either inevitable facts of our environment or our personalities.
Now at this point you’re probably saying, Megan, this is a grad student blog. Why are you talking about middle school so much?
Because I see the same things happening in the world of graduate students. We internalize this belief in academia that grad life means being miserable. A lot. Or we believe we are imposters; that we can never measure up to the expectations of ourselves, our colleagues, or advisors. And that anxiety, fear, stress, will always be the constant of our experience.
I run a mindfulness and meditation group to challenge these beliefs.
Mental illness and distress are common elements of the graduate experience; a recent study found 41% of grad students experience depression and 39% anxiety. But I don’t think this has to be the common elements of our experience.
The reasons for these trends are many, but it became clear to me last year that Lehigh grad students lack support when processing the symptoms of a mental illness or feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear among others.
My privilege has allowed me to see a therapist and get the meds I need. Not everyone is so lucky. Mindfulness and meditation practices are accessible to all: you don’t need money, a lot of time, or a lot of experience to practice being present and accepting of yourself. The more you practice, the greater the benefits (including stress reduction, improved sleep quality, and improved attention span). But even a 10-20 min practice once a week can help.
I was asked to write this blog in response to the question: What inspired you to start the mindfulness group?
I run the group because I want my community to know:
- Feelings of pain and distress are not inevitably part of academic life. Anyone that tells you otherwise is bullshitting you.
- Your feelings are real and valid. You are not dramatic or selfish when you feel or express distress, or for needing to take time for yourself.
- We (as a community) will give you the support you want.
- You deserve self-care.
- You matter.
If you ever need to hear or experience these things, come join our group in Drown Hall, Room 010 at 12:10-12:30 every Wednesday. We use a variety of exercises, all easy to understand and do, targeting specific emotional experiences and just to help relax. The exercises range from 10-20 min in length.
It doesn’t matter if you are navigating a diagnosed mental illness, stressed from writer’s block, coping with grief, or just feeling shitty. You deserve to take time for yourself. You deserve support. Whether that support comes from the counseling center, your doctor, your friends, or your department’s meditation group, you deserve it. That’s what I want you to hear. And that’s what I hope you’ll remember.