A little over a year ago, medical student Luzhen Fang noticed she had trouble concentrating. Multitasking had become a habit. And yet, she had to be able to concentrate on her studies.
Fang decided to take part in an intervention study focused on students’ awareness skills launching at the Faculty. She had heard about mindfulness, but had not tried it herself.
Learning the skills turned out to be a positive experience, something Fang recommends to others.
“It helped with stress. Improving my concentration was a big thing. I stopped multitasking and realised that negative thoughts and making yourself feel guilty are not at all necessary,” Fang explains.
At the start of the course, students wrote a letter to their future selves. After reading the letter later, Fang saw how studying mental skills had affected her.
“My thinking used to be quite cynical, without my even realising it. Now, I’m able to accept negative thoughts and move on.”
Regular practice is key
At the Faculty of Medicine, all students have been offered ‘Mindfulness skills and wellbeing’, a course worth 2.5 credits, since this autumn. A corresponding course is available to the teaching staff.
The courses are being organised because according to the preliminary results of the intervention study and student feedback, teaching mindfulness pays off. Regular mindfulness exercises reduce feelings of stress.
Roughly a hundred students took part in the study. They were divided into a group that attended an eight-week period of contact teaching, a group that took an online course, and a control group. Stress increased in all students during the autumn, but those receiving mindfulness instruction experienced less stress immediately after the intervention compared to members of the control group.
Practising mindfulness at least twice a week appeared to reduce feelings of stress also after the intervention. Discontinuing the practice made the effects wear out.
This is a phenomenon Luzhen Fang recognises.
“After the intervention, I continued mindfulness exercises for a couple of months, eventually stopping at some point. My stress levels started to rise again. Still, there were some permanent benefits and the application I downloaded also helps.”
Stress management also for professional life
The intervention study was carried out at the initiative of Vice-Dean Tiina Paunio. According to a wellbeing survey conducted at the Faculty of Medicine, nearly half of students feel stressed. The Faculty wishes to invest in student wellbeing, and the idea has been to develop new measures on the basis of research.
“Students feel quite a lot of stress, but their experiences are diverse. Mindfulness courses aim to influence individual reactions,” Paunio says.
According to Paunio, study-related stress is a universal phenomenon, but structured, target-oriented and fast-paced programmes such as the Degree Programme in Medicine can be particularly stressful.
She believes that learning mindfulness prepares students for and provides them with skills needed in professional life. Work in the healthcare sector often requires good performance in a high-pressure environment.
“I hope that we are on the threshold of a new era for healthcare professions in terms of having the courage to ensure and talk about personal working capacity. Taking care of yourself is part of being professional.”
Paunio thinks every individual has a unique way of dealing with stress and strain. Some find mindfulness exercises useful, others rely on something else.
“Naturally, we have to take into account the stressfulness of studies and the conditions prevalent in professional life,” she adds.
Keep your body in mind. Internal monologue. Towards difficulties, not away from them. Stuck in the past? Do things you enjoy.
The above themes were part of the contact instruction in the intervention study. The programme included meditation, exercises and discussions. The intervention was based on the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) method.
The participants felt they learnt self-observation skills, acceptance, self-compassion, distancing and the ability to find composure.
“My feeling is that mindfulness is beneficial to people who tend to worry about things, as it distances you from your thoughts,” says Saara Repo, senior lecturer in university pedagogy who carried out the intervention study.
The students were eager to participate in the study. Even the control group got excited and started looking for courses on the topic.
“Responses to our career monitoring survey have shown that students feel not enough stress management skills are taught during studies,” says Repo.
To Repo’s knowledge, no mindfulness instruction has been provided in other Finnish faculties of medicine. However, the subject is part of a number of medical degree programmes in, among others, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
“Students find it useful to learn mental skills. Mindfulness is not the treatment of illnesses, but preventative care of mental hygiene,” Repo states.
Watch the video on the Mindfulness Course above!