Medical Students, Wellness

Mindfulness Meditation: How to Stay Focused in Med School and Beyond

Medical school (and even beyond) can be demanding. Practicing mindful meditation can help offset that stress. Learn how.

I started practicing mindfulness meditation about halfway through my second year of medical school. Like many medical students, I was beginning to have difficulty with my focus during studying. A school counselor recommended I try mindfulness meditation. It was briefly explained as sitting down in a quiet place, free from distraction, for 5-10 minutes and focusing on breathing. I was somewhat skeptical, but I figured I had nothing to lose.

With mindfulness meditation, I began to feel different. When I sat down to study, I was aware of when my mind wandered. When it did, I was able to gently but firmly bring myself back to the present moment and focus on the task at hand. I became more productive academically and in other aspects of my life.

What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being in the present moment and having complete awareness of one’s thoughts and actions. It is usually connected to the breath, as focusing on such a natural function can slow us down in our rapidly paced life.

What’s the evidence?
The science of mindfulness meditation is still in its infancy, but multiple studies have reported promising results, especially in the realm of medicine and health care. The goal of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) research has been to demonstrate the effect of MBSR programs for health professionals, patients, and others. During MSBR, different brain activity patterns have been identified. These include fostering specific attention mechanisms and activating regions of the brain associated with more adaptive response to stressful or negative situations, which may result in better responses to stressful experiences.1,2

MBSR has been associated with benefits related to stress responses and learning. First, the practice of mindful meditation helps to develop effective emotion regulation in the brain.3 Further, it may be an efficacious therapy for reducing anxiety and depression symptoms.4 Second, it may enhance attentional capacities through gains in working memory.5 People who practiced mindfulness meditation have been shown to develop the skill of self-observation that neurologically disengages autonomic pathways created from prior learning and enables present moment input to be integrated in a new way.6 Specifically, in medical students, higher empathy, lower anxiety, and fewer depression symptoms have been reported by students after participating in MSBR.7 In summary, mindfulness meditation may be used to elicit positive emotions, minimize negative affect and rumination, and enable effective emotion regulation.

How do I start mindfulness meditation?
You can begin at home, the library, on the bus, or lying in bed. Ideally, you would like to find a place where you’ll be free from distraction for the duration of your meditation. You may be thinking, “How will I find time to implement something else in my already ridiculously busy schedule?” You can take the approach of meditating whenever you have a free five minutes, when you think your mind needs it, or you can do what I do and have a designated time each day for meditation. To begin, apply your attention to your bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and surrounding environment. I began with a guided mindfulness meditation playlist I found online. I did this about 1-2 times per week for about 3 minutes per session. This slowly became 5-10 minutes, and the duration continued to grow after each session.

It’s a myth that mindfulness meditation requires you turn the mind off, free from distractions, and attain complete zen. This meditation practice recognizes thinking is simply what minds do. Mindfulness is about being aware of where your mind and thoughts take you. While mindfulness meditation may not remove stress or negative feelings completely from your life, it may help you experience them in a drastically different way.

1. Valentine ER, Sweet PLG. Meditation and attention: A comparison of the effects of concentrative and mindfulness meditation on sustained attention. Ment Health Relig Cult. 1999;2(1):59-70.
2. Cahn BR, Polich J. Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychol Bull. 2006;132(2):180-211.
3. Corcoran KM, Farb N, Anderson A, Segal ZV. Mindfulness and emotion regulation: Outcomes and possible mediating mechanisms. In: Kring AM, Sloan DM, eds. Emotion Regulation and Psychopathology: A Transdiagnostic Approach to Etiology and Treatment. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2010:339-355.
4. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2010;78(2):169-183.
5. Chambers R, Lo BCY, Allen NB. The Impact of Intensive Mindfulness Training on Attentional Control, Cognitive Style, and Affect. Cognit Ther Res. 2008;32(3):303-322.
6. Siegel DJ. Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007;2(4):259-263.
7. Shapiro SL, Schwartz GE, Bonner G. Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students. J Behav Med. 1998;21(6):581-599.


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