Today is Stress Awareness Day – an annual campaign dedicated to raise awareness of the impact of stress and to promote wellbeing. As we observe this day and take stock of how stress manifests in our own lives and places of work, it would be fair to say that universities have become a breeding ground for stress. With competing deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain jobs market, it is no wonder that students are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety.
Yet students aren’t alone in their experiences. A survey conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) also revealed alarmingly high stress levels among university staff. In the lead up to the current academic year, Education Minister Sam Gyimah remarked that the prioritisation of wellbeing in higher education was non-negotiable, as he called on universities to show more leadership in this area.
So, what can be done to reduce stress across universities? The fact is that many of the common methods for reducing stress are well known across the academic community – practices like meditation, mindfulness, exercise, yoga, and healthy eating are things that we’re all familiar with. But, the reality is that our familiarity with stress reduction practices doesn’t always translate into implementing them in our daily routines. From a personal perspective I can attest to how these practices are often the first things to go when I’m facing a deadline or an intensely busy period.
Let’s take meditation for instance. Whether you have a meditation practice or not, you’ve probably heard about the positive impacts of meditation for general health and wellbeing. Meditation has been correlated with alleviating the symptoms associated with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Meditators have also reported experiencing lower levels of stress and a general improvement in their overall quality of life.
Despite the extolled benefits of meditation, when it comes to implementing this method in our lives, many are left unconvinced of the merits of beginning a meditation practice. After all, as busy students and staff members, how can we possibly be expected to add anything else to our already crowded to-do lists?
But what if a more convincing case could be made that appeals to our academic mindset – a case based on the scientific evidence of stress reduction? Could this shift our perception of meditation and encourage students and staff to take this practice more seriously? Let’s take a closer look at the evidence.
Many of the studies highlighting the benefits of meditation have – until very recently – relied upon entirely subjective research methods. As new discoveries in the field of neuroscience have emerged, particularly in relation to neuroplasticity, neuroscientists have begun to objectively assess the impact of meditation using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
One notable experiment, led by Harvard neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, consisted of selecting two groups across a similar demographic that had not previously meditated. Dr Lazar’s team put one of the groups on an 8-week stress reduction programme involving a daily guided meditation, while the control group were instructed to continue with their daily routines as normal. Participants in the stress reduction group spent an average of 27 minutes per day meditating.
While MRI scans showed no significant changes among the control group, Dr Lazar’s team found some startling results in the group of meditators. After just 8 weeks of meditating, MRI scans revealed notable changes in a number of areas of the brain including,
- an increase in cortical thickness or grey matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, pre-frontal cortex and the temporo-parietal junction – parts of the brain associated with memory, concentration, cognition, decision-making, problem-solving, and emotional regulation;
- a decreased activation and stilling of the Default Mode Network (DMN), responsible for directionless thought and mind wandering;
- a decrease in the size of the amygdala – the focal point of the brain’s fight or flight stress response mechanism.
This is a fascinating and powerful scientific discovery that objectively confirms the benefits of meditation. What it tells us is that meditation can literally change the structure of the brain and if there is one thing that we in the academic community value it is the health of our brains!
What is most exciting about Dr Lazar’s findings is that these positive neurological changes can be observed in as little as 8 weeks. For more information on the benefits of meditation and Dr Lazar’s research visit www.scholar.harvard.edu/sara_lazar/home
If you are interested in starting a meditation practice and are unsure where to begin, check out the following links where you can download guided meditations straight to your phone or tablet:
Dr Serena Sharma teaches in the IR and Government Departments at the LSE. She is also the founder of AcademEase – an organisation dedicated to helping students and university staff overcome academic stress through one-to-one coaching and wellness workshops. Sign up for our mailing list and download your free guide ‘8 Steps for Sustaining Motivation During Your PhD.’