UC Answers: How can mindfulness help us cope?

Expert in mindfulness and its benefits offers advice to the UC community

Sian Cotton, PhD, is director of the UC Center for Integrative Health and Wellness, Turner Farm Foundation Chair, and a professor in the UC Department of Family and Community Medicine. She offers tips on how to cope during the pandemic.

What is mindfulness and how does it contribute to our overall well-being?

Mindfulness can be defined as the awareness that emerges when we are paying attention in a particular way in the present moment, nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of that moment-to-moment experience in our lives. That's a mouthful, so let me tell you what it actually is. I think of mindfulness as the opposite to automatic thinking. Often in our lives we are automatic thinkers. We get somewhere and we think, “How did I get there?” Our mind is somewhere else much of the time and that is normal. Mindfulness is a capacity and a skill that we can learn to bring us into present moment awareness so that we can engage fully with what “is” rather than with “what was” or “what we think might be coming.” What are we currently thinking? What are we feeling? What are we doing right now? Instead of spending so much time in the past and so much time in the future, mindfulness asks us to consider and be present in the here and now. People that are more mindful are more focused, they're more productive at work and they're more resilient. They have less anxiety, less depression, they sleep better and they enjoy their relationships more. Mindful people have an overall better quality of life.

How can being mindful help UC students, staff and parents in the midst of so much uncertainty with constant COVID-19 news?

The World Health Organization has called stress the health epidemic of the 21st century. Now with COVID-19 you layer on a global pandemic that has just increased the stress of our communities globally. People are anxious about the present and the future. There's a lot of grief and loss. People have lost the opportunity to celebrate and mark life events such as graduations, weddings, and major life transitions. The question is how can mindfulness help us cope with this sense of loss? How do we cope with the stress, the uncertainty, the grief and the change associated with a global pandemic?  Certainly students, faculty and staff all still have a job to do.

They still need to focus. They still need to be able to pay attention in the classroom, whether it be online or at home. A mindfulness practice can help all of our UC community increase their focus and increase their ability to not waste time. To actually be focused in the moment, attend to the task at hand, get the work done and then be able to go enjoy life with loved ones. We also know that mindfulness can help ease high levels of stress. Faculty, staff, and students are all undergoing significantly increased amounts of stress. In addition to focus and productivity, we know that increasing the use of mindfulness skills and techniques can help reduce stress and things like burnout, increase wellness and improve your immune system. All these things are going to help your well-being on a personal level and help you be able to attend to work and school, thus being able to better manage other aspects of your life.

What techniques in mindfulness might help me through a typical day? Are tai chi, yoga and aromatherapy somehow connected to being mindful?

Again, mindfulness is actually a skill and an awareness that can be taught, and there are ways to cultivate mindfulness. There's a difference between a formal practice (a mindfulness meditation, for example) and an informal practice. You can do an informal practice while brushing your teeth, taking a shower or drinking your coffee — just do it in a mindful way. You might start 60 seconds a day, that's all you have to do to begin a mindfulness practice.

Let’s consider a mindful shower. Think about when you're actually in the shower. You're thinking about your day, you're thinking about what's coming up. What are you going to wear? What do the kids have for breakfast? What time is it? As opposed to that: See if you can really notice in the moment how your body feels. Use all of your senses. What do you smell? Do you smell the aromas in the shower? What do you feel? What do you hear?

You can also cultivate mindfulness through yoga and tai chi, which are examples of movement-based therapies or movement meditations. They have mindfulness as a core component of what they are. For example, if you're in a yoga class, your instructor might say to you, “Come back to what you feel now. What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” In the practice, you're asked to think about your present moment experience. Do you ever get to the end of a yoga class and think, “Oh, I was thinking about my emails”? No, you won’t, because the practice actually helps cultivate awareness. 

Yoga, tai chi and walking meditations are all examples of more formal mindfulness practices that can help us cultivate awareness. And we cultivate that so when we really need it in our life, when something really stresses us out or somebody comes at us, we can be more responsive and thoughtful and less reactive. Mindfulness helps us do just this.

How long will it take to practice mindful techniques before I feel a difference?

Much of the research on mindfulness has been conducted on eight-week programs with daily practice. However, other studies have looked at something like attention or emotional response after just a 10-minute meditation and seen positive impact.  So there is not a “magic” number of how much meditation I need to see a difference. Mindfulness training is similar to working out, but rather than a physical workout it’s more of a mental training and workout. So similarly to working out at the gym, consistency is more important than the amount of practice. Clearly, the more you practice, the better you will get. But consistently, even 60-seconds a day is a great place to start.

Individuals practicing mindfulness have areas in their brain that light up in an MRI after eight weeks that didn't light up eight weeks before. These areas are related to attention and control and emotion regulation. Mindfulness literally creates new neural pathways in your brain. That's some of the science underlying the why.  Since eight weeks sounds intimidating I suggest you start with 60 seconds a day. Try it for a week. If you miss a day, no worries; come back the next day and try again. We know that the more you put into it and the more you practice, the more benefit you will see.

What is the UC Center for Integrative Health and Wellness doing to promote mindfulness in the UC community?

We have a variety of mindfulness-based programs to support our UC community and our community at large. One of our flagship programs is the mind body skills program. We now have faculty and staff trained in 11 of our colleges and campuses. They teach small groups of students mindfulness practices, guided imagery, journaling, all the mind-body tools to really increase self-awareness and reduce stress. We've trained about 75 faculty and staff now across our campus and we continue to train more people several times a year. We  also offer “Mindful Mondays,” and Dr. Barbara Walker. It’s virtual and free to anybody, both on campus and off, to just give people a good mindful start to their day.

We also have a new program called workplace mindfulness. We started working in the community with many businesses and nonprofit partners, including Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati Museum Center and Cincinnati Public Schools. Our community is stressed, and it needs the support. Our teachers need it, our leaders need it and our students need it. Workplace mindfulness helps our community stay healthier by developing tools to improve resiliency and reduce stress. We also offer mindfulness-based stress reduction, a well-established program down at Freestore Foodbank with the support of the Sanghvi Family Foundation. We offer it to Cincinnati Cooks, a wonderful program for people with histories of incarceration and homelessness. They learn how to be say line chefs, and this mindfulness helps give them additional life skills and tools to support wellness and resilience. 

Featured photo of Sian Cotton, PhD, was taken by Lisa Ventre/UC Creative + Brand.

Stay mindful, realize the benefit of present moment awareness

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