This is a guest post by Donna Franklin, an applied psychology alumnus of Nottingham University. Donna candidly shares her challenging academic journey to finding mindfulness, a helpful strategy with which to navigate the emotional landscape of the PhD.
‘Can I really do this? ‘Am I good enough? Sound familiar? Ever heard of Imposter Syndrome? Ever feel you are an imposter who is masquerading doing a PhD? Well you are not alone. I worried myself with continuous doubts of not being good enough for a long time.
Chancing upon the massive on-line course Survive Phd15 run by Dr Inger Mewburn from the popular ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ blog, the course focused the often unspoken emotional journey of the PhD process. I was introduced to Imposter Syndrome, which resonated strongly. It seemed to encapsulate my own challenging academic journey. Even though I had trained as a clinical psychologist, I hadn’t come across Imposter Syndrome before, (as it is not considered a diagnosable emotional disorder), nevertheless I was curious to see if it might shed some light on my difficult PhD journey which, I was beginning to realise, ran deep.
As a result of my underlying doubt, my PhD experience triggered anxiety and then later depression that impacted significantly on my ability to perform. Regarding myself as spiritually minded, my interest in the benefits of mindfulness grew as I began to recognise the therapeutic similarities between my meditative interests and the various stress-reduction strategies used in clinical practice. Given the emotional upheaval, my priority was to protect against any return to an unbalanced state by taking part in a Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) training course. Seeking a practical way in which to align heart and mind (thoughts and feelings), I was keen to experience the emotional benefits of mindful meditation as: better concentration, increased self-awareness, non-judgemental acceptance together with the cultivation of ‘letting-go’, as the attitudes supporting positive mental health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness is characterised as the activity of ‘paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgemental awareness of one’s inner and outer experiences’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). As a state of awareness achieved through meditative practice, its core attributes have been identified as:
- the awareness of sensation
- a non-judgemental acceptance of experience
Self-awareness and non-judgemental acceptance are offered as therapeutic aims for relapse prevention from depression. They are effective antidotes to the avoidance, procrastination and worry that often feed doubtful thinking. Seeking to ‘slow things down’ in order to increase awareness of the present moment ‘here and now’, individuals learn how to be less reactive and judgemental of their experiences, helping themselves break free of the unhelpful thoughts and actions that maintain doubtful thinking.
With practice, the emotional benefits of mindfulness have been found to be:
- Enhanced concentration
- Increased awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations
- Development of a state of ‘being’ ie. living in the here and now – rather than pushing oneself against the ‘doing’ mode of thinking which says ‘I must, I should do’.
- Developing acceptance (otherwise known as ‘kind-awareness’ of what an experience ‘actually’ is).
- The growth of an ability to ‘let go’ that is critical for avoiding and freeing oneself from unhealthy cycles of interaction.
- Increasing awareness and activities that facilitate self-care & self-compassion.
So how does it work? By learning to use several meditative techniques, the mind and body can be gradually encouraged to ‘slow down’ and unwind from the ‘doing mode’. Techniques include:
The Body Scan – a progressive observation and awareness of the body in minute detail.
Guided meditations (spoken) (3, 20, & 45 minute duration)
Routine Activity – paying ‘close’ attention whilst engaged in a ‘routine activity’ eg. Brushing teeth.
Noticing of small things & events that make up one’s moment to moment experience (eg. the sight of a bird crossing the sky, the noise of a slamming door) that occur throughout the day.
Use of the breath (3 minute breathing space) as an anchor for concentration.
I found that if you experiment with the various meditative techniques, you will quickly find what works best for you, whether it be regular use of the 3-minute breathing space (as a quick ‘tune in’) or a longer period of focused concentration with a body-scan at the end of the day.
My personal experience with mindfulness has been transformative. Experimenting initially with the body scan, I was surprised by my level of restlessness. Over time, using the guided meditations, I have been able to identify my bodily sensations more readily, scanning for tension pockets which offers me insight about my emotional state and the opportunity to pause and consider how I might best respond more skilfully. With the three-minute breathing space at my disposal, slowing things down ‘labelling’ my thoughts and feelings descriptively eg. judging, happy, fearful, content, doubtful and empowered has been liberating.
So yes, mindfulness seems to work for me. The sense of clarity and calm that it brings to my life has been noticeable, together with the belief that I am no imposter but the genuine article reassures me from the inside out! Try it! I’m sure it will works wonders for you too.
Some useful resources:
A useful blog – http://www.mindful.org/about-mindful/
Body scan meditation (45 mins) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHO_6FSTrG4
U Tube – introduction to Mindfulness – Kabat-Zinn – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxYFxjZBqHg