Ready for Mindfulness?

Being “in the present” helps reduce student stress.


How long does it take to eat a raisin? If you eat it mindfully, it could take several minutes, according to Craig Scott, Ph.D., UW professor emeritus in the Department of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education.

“You think about what the raisin is and all the people involved in getting it into your hand,” says Scott. “That slowing down is so important.”

It turns out that this kind of mindfulness is very useful in helping medical, nursing and pharmacy students navigate the pressure cooker of school and career. That’s why mindfulness has become the focus of a long-standing course called Mind-Body-Medicine (MBM) Skills: An Experiential Elective, a course now chaired by Lisa Erlanger, M.D.

The MBM course began when Frank Vincenzi, M.S., Ph.D. ’65, UW professor emeritus in the Department of Pharmacology, and a few other UW faculty attended a training program at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. With support from the Friends of the UW School of Medicine, they incorporated what they learned into an eight-week elective course for medical, nursing and pharmacy students.

Faculty, who are all volunteers, teach mindfulness — defined as non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment — through a variety of experiences, including biofeedback, yoga, guided imagery and various types of meditation. The class is taught entirely in small groups.

“When medical students first hear about this course, many respond, ‘I don’t have time,’” says Scott, the former course chair. “And we say, ‘You really can’t afford not to take the time.” Students reported that skills learned in the class help them make better use of study time, use their breaks for self-care and mind rejuvenation, and reduce their levels of stress and anxiety.

It has also become clear, Scott says, that not every experiential tool resonates with everyone, but nearly everyone finds a few that are useful. And now, he has the data to prove it.

Scott, Vincenzi and other volunteer faculty guides just published results from a seven-year retrospective study in the Journal of Complementary Medicine and Alternative Healthcare. It is the first long-term follow-up study of mindfulness practices in the health sciences. Among their findings: 91 percent of former medical students reported that the mindfulness experiences they learned were either “very” or “moderately” effective at helping reduce their stress. Over 72 percent said they would recommend a similar experience for their colleagues. Nursing and pharmacy students also had positive experiences.

The findings are promising — and gratifying, too. “It validates our efforts,” says Vincenzi. That said, neither Vincenzi nor Scott think the course should be a requirement.

“This type of experiential course is ideal for those who recognize they’re getting overwhelmed or stressed for whatever reasons,” says Vincenzi. “They have to be ready to explore how mindfulness can benefit their own self-care.”

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With a gift to the Friends of the UW School of Medicine Fund.