The findings of a recently published new study, led by the University of Bristol and described as the first of its kind in Britain, indicate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has far-reaching beneficial effects on the mental health and well-being of university students.
Published in February in Education Research International, the study is based on research conducted among a group of 57 medical students who took part in an eight-week mindfulness program after having been referred to a mindfulness group by a medical practitioner or student adviser.
Under the conditions of the study, the students were required to attend two hours of MBCT training for each of the eight weeks, along with a commitment to 30 minutes of daily home practice. The participants were taught understand thought processes and the way the mind works, the impact of stress on emotional health, how to recognize stress triggers and symptoms of stress, and self-care techniques and tools for coping, including a regular meditation practice.
The far-reaching benefits of meditation and mindfulness, long recognized by many spiritual traditions, have been gaining increasing traction in the West in recent years, both within and outside the Buddhist world. Perhaps nowhere is this positive impact being more keenly felt, and with the greatest potential to improve the future, than at the growing number of schools that are incorporating these practices into their daily curriculums.*
“Recent evidence suggests that university students are more likely to develop mental health problems when compared with the general population,” the University of Bristol said in a report. “The . . . study aimed to establish whether mindfulness could be effective at improving mental health and wellbeing in medical students who are considered more at risk of developing a stress-related illness.”
As a form of cognitive therapy, MBCT incorporates mindfulness tools and practices such as breathing exercises and meditation to teach subjects how to dismantle negative thought patterns that can lead to a downward spiral into depression.
“At Bristol, we are continuing to increase efforts to find solutions to improve mental health among the student population. Our aim is to find effective new ways of supporting students who may be suffering from stress and anxiety,” said Dr. Alice Malpass, a co-author of the research report. “This study has shown how mindfulness can help students who might be struggling, in particular medical students, find new ways of relating to the difficulties that arise in their clinical work, studying, and well-being.” (University of Bristol)
According to the researchers, the students reported improvements in empathy and communication skills with patients as a result of being more observant of their own thoughts and feelings, as well as feeling more able to manage their workloads. They also described being increasingly proficient at noticing automatic self-judgmental thoughts without identifying with themselves with negative ideas.
“We have developed a theoretical model of the medical student ‘stress signature,’ mapping how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can break the cycle of specific vulnerability through the development of new coping strategies,” said Dr. Malpass. (University of Bristol)
The authors of the study noted that while more research is required, the findings provided significant evidence that the mindfulness training provided to the group of medical students had been effective in lowering anxiety and reducing the incidence of negative thought patterns. The students also reported experiencing improved resilience to stress triggers and better overall emotional well-being.
In their concluding notes, the researchers stated:
Students reported a learnt awareness of stress triggers and early warning signs of stress symptoms. Students reported a new relationship to their thoughts and feelings which gave a greater sense of control and resiliency. Students described the importance of the mindfulness training to go beyond learning a set of tools for coping with difficulty. They described a complete change in attitude: a “new way of looking at life”, and a complete change in perspective: “its changed the way I experience the world and my own emotions. Set me on a path towards healthy processes”. The small group context was an important facilitator for these changes in well-being, resiliency, and outlook.
The value of genuine mindfulness and meditation practices has been amply demonstrated by thousands of years of spiritual tradition, and is supported by a growing body of modern scientific evidence. While these practices cannot provide a one-size-fits-all panacea for every problem, they do offer a set of tools that can enable people to master their inner lives and reshape their responses to challenging circumstances and situations, providing a means to declutter thought processes, build emotional resilience, and let go of negative thoughts and mindsets.
* Mindfulness Trials Rolled Out at Hundreds of Schools in England (Buddhistdoor Global)
Medical Students’ Experience of Mindfulness Training in the UK: Well-Being, Coping Reserve, and Professional Development (Education research International)
Mindfulness found to improve mental health of students (University of Bristol)