Medical students face a lot of pressure, particularly in the first couple of years. They are often in a new place, surrounded by new people and expected to learn a lot in a short time. On top of that, students have to make big decisions about their futures — and it's easy for their minds to go into overdrive.
Practicing mindfulness for just 10 or 20 minutes each day can help students slow down. UCLA medical student Martin Safrin teaches a series on mindfulness and shares a few brain exercises students can employ to help ease a racing mind and deal with stressful times.
"The term mindfulness is often misused, but it generally means having an awareness and acceptance of the sensory experience of the present moment," Safrin says. "Pay attention to your emotions, accept them and notice what's happening in your mind. Accept what's happening as it happens."
Although it sounds like a simple objective, it's far from easy and takes time for anyone to master. The following three strategies can serve as tools to keep the mind sharp, resilient and ready to learn. It's best to practice at least one of them every day.
Make friends with your racing mind
For many, trying to process all the thoughts racing through their head only leads to a snowball effect. Listening to the mind's stories can be overwhelming and upsetting them. Instead, try breaking down those thoughts into parts.
"Pay attention to the sensory aspects. Are there images flashing through your mind?" Safrin says. "Is there a verbal energy? Get to know these patterns, without grasping at or suppressing this activity."
To do this, Safrin suggests labeling. Mentally say the word "seeing" for visual images as they run through the mind, or label the internal self-talk as "hearing" and emotions as "feeling." You can even label the type of thought, such as worry, planning or remembering.
Offering the mind real-time, generic labels interrupts its desire to find meaning and provides a feedback loop for being clear about what's happening in the present.
Some ideas are too overwhelming. That's when it helps to have a positive replacement — similar to the idea of finding a happy place. Choose a phrase or word that is positive, and repeat it whenever negative thoughts become overpowering.
Focus on something else
Classic mindfulness practices that focus on the breathing process are a good example of changing focus. Although many people feel like they need to find stillness every time they try this, that's not actually the case. The mind races more when you try to stop it. Instead, don't fight your thoughts: let them come and go, and always return focus to the breath.
"These strategies help us prevent the mind from getting stuck in habitual patterns," Safrin says. "This frees up more energy, keeping the mind more fluid and resilient, yielding insights, creativity and kindness."
The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA has a range of resources for students, with guided meditation online or in person and mindfulness classes. Students can try different brain exercises like these to keep their minds sharp and heads clear.