Mindfulness in Science? That’s MENTAL!

(Yes it is, indeed: Happy Mental Health Day, everyone!)

Mindfulness and stress management trainer Sonja Noss, PHOTO: Sonja Noss

Can you believe it? What’s mindfulness got to do with a scientific conference? I am here to discuss excellent science, not to sit there cross-legged in front of a scented candle, to chant mantras or hug my colleagues”.

Fair point, because what you are talking about is not mindfulness. And yet, as a professional mindfulness facilitator working in a scientific high-performance environment, I encounter this type of statement fairly frequently. It used to upset me, now I usually respond with a smile: “Oh that’s not all. When you come in we will shave your head, put you in a yellow robe and hang a handmade flower garland around your neck”. (Which usually kicks off a more reasonable discussion).

Mindfulness? What is that exactly?!

Mindfulness, to me and in a nutshell, is shutting out the background noise of everyday life and focusing on what you would like to focus on – and being fully aware of what you are doing. Put bluntly, the practice of mindfulness entails a lot of sitting on your bottom / lying on your back / walking around and simply “shutting up”. Without being distracted. In fact, it’s very simple, and yet, not at all easy – otherwise it would not be called a PRACTICE.

Why is this relevant in a scientific surrounding?

In my opinion it is essential, since being able to pay and hold your attention on a certain matter practically equals having a superpower at work – or at a conference for that matter, for example during the last session at 8pm, in a lecture room with no natural light. Many would argue that time is the most limited resource in our working days, but I would argue that it is attention – which a myriad of beeping devices, colleagues, social media, new publications, methods and technological developments, as well as the publication of the daily lunch menu are constantly competing for.

In addition to that, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Health Services (UK) mindfulness can also have a variety of other positive effects on practitioners’ mental health, as the below figure shows.

Figure by Sonja Noss

 

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in science, with increasingly frequent articles in magazines like Nature and Science slowly starting to deconstruct the stereotype: the myth of the “Demi-God in White” doesn’t leave much room for suffering an anxiety attack before your PhD defence, for fear of speaking in public (hello, conference presenters!), for depression caused by glum career perspectives, or any other mental-health challenge. Mindfulness, and especially programmes like the well-studied MBSR programme, can make an important contribution to keeping sane in the pressure cooker that modern science has become. I see them as one pillar in mental health prevention, alongside other aspects such as physical exercise, getting enough sleep, a balanced diet, nourishing social interactions/feeling connected, a sense of purpose, as well as personal interests and hobbies (i.e. having FUN!).

Some simple (mindful) examples of what you could start trying to do in the workplace or at conferences if it is all getting a bit much:

  • In general: learn what your personal stress reactions are. How do you even know you are stressed? What are your personal stress symptoms? Do you get easily agitated or frustrated? Do you tend to suffer from headaches more when you are stressed? Do you suffer from insomnia? Attention to these details is the first step – and that’s already mindfulness.
  • As soon as you notice these symptoms – if you can- take a break. This does not have to be a long break. There are fantastic quick focusing and grounding practices such as this one from Prof. Mark Williams (Oxford Mindfulness Center). See if that makes a difference.
  • Move! Get up and take a walk around the block, if only for five minutes! Any wild animal just having sprinted for its life in the jungle will have broken down the stress hormones floating around its body by the physical exercise. As would the creature which has just fought for their lives. What do humans do? We go and sit down at our desks or stand at the bench… Get enough movement, fresh air, light (not in that lecture room, I guess!), and oxygen.
  • Establish a regular mindfulness practice. The easiest way to do this is with the help of an experienced teacher. Maybe you can contact your organisation’s HR Department or the Staff Association and ask for support in having a training on site?
  • If you have been feeling unwell for a long time (weather vs. climate), please seek professional help. Many organisations have options for coaching or therapeutic interventions available. If not, speak to a person you trust and ask them for help in finding a private coach or therapist. Asking for help is often the hardest thing – and you want to be a tough guy/gal/…, right?

I have been teaching mindfulness and stress management at EMBL for over 3 years, and the initiative has been a great success. Once set up and piloted with the support of the Administrative Director and other departments, the 8-week programme quickly made a great entrance into EMBL General Training Programme. It has become one of the organisation’s most popular courses, with sessions running in parallel to meet the demand.

If you are interested in my Coaching services or would like to bring mindfulness to your organisation, get in touch via www.sonjanoss.com.

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