Tips From Current D.D.S. and Dental Hygiene Students

Mind Full or Mindful?

Posted by Gerard Scannell on February 22, 2019

How is your body positioned at this very moment? How are your arms and legs situated? Are your shoulders slouched? Is your head tilted downward?

Regardless of the answers, you just practiced mindfulness simply by becoming aware of the current moment. We often spend most of our day pondering the past or the future without a break to appreciate the present. We rarely allow our minds to rest for even a few minutes a day. However, being mindful does not mean having a completely blank mind. Mindfulness is purely being in the moment and aware of what is currently happening. This is the essence of meditation, one of the most common ways to practice mindfulness. Meditation does not require lighting incense, lining your room with crystals or any other stereotypical “woo-woo” rituals portrayed on TV. It can be practiced anywhere, anytime.

I have been meditating on and off for a few years now. I do not consider myself anywhere near proficient, but I have harnessed techniques that I often implement at dental school throughout the day. A great benefit I have found helpful in school is being fully present during a lecture. Everyone has thoughts that cross their mind in class. “I wonder if anyone has texted me.” “I wonder what is happening anywhere else in the world other than this classroom.” The skill of being more observant of my thoughts, which I obtained through meditation, helps me recognize when my thoughts have wandered. Once I recognize the distraction, I can bring my focus back to the task at hand. An important part of this practice is not the constant focus, but consciously bringing your attention back once it has strayed. This is a very common exercise during mediation. The repetition of recognizing your focus has drifted and bringing your attention back to the present moment is mental muscle you build during a mindfulness practice. This acquired awareness can be applied in the clinic, while studying or even during conversations and interactions with others.

I can also recognize when I am having negative or self-deprecating thoughts in stressful situations. I acknowledge the thought, understand it does not define me, and let it go. Another very important aspect of mindfulness is to not judge your thoughts. Believing or avoiding your thoughts can be detrimental. Instead, acknowledge them as fleeting objects of the mind. Just because they appear in your consciousness doesn’t mean they are true and define who you are as a person. Giving into and believing negative thoughts about yourself can add to any stress or anxiety you are experiencing. According to a 2013 article in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand, “Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Serum Cortisol of Medical Students,” it is shown that meditation can lower cortisol (nature’s built-in alarm system and the body’s main stress hormone) levels. A mindfulness practice can also help reduce the risk of suicide, according to the 2012 article “Mindfulness in the Treatment of Suicidal Individuals” in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. Any type of mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for prevention.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, so there is a type for everyone. A good way to begin is with meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm or Oak. Yoga is also a popular way to practice mindfulness. My personal favorite is focusing on your breathing for one or two minutes.

Let’s try it now.

Close your eyes and mentally scan your body from head to toe. Note how you are physically positioned. Don’t change it, just observe it. Now, with your eyes still closed, focus on the rhythm of your breathing. Feel the air flow in and out of your lungs. Feel your abdomen softly rise and fall. Try not to control your breathing but allow it to occur naturally. Continue this for the next minute. Your mind may roam to something else, which is normal. Once you have acknowledged the thought, gently bring your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing.

How did that feel? For some it might be easy, for others quite difficult. The consistent focus isn’t the practice of mindfulness, rather it’s the recognition of the mind wandering and returning your focus that is the practice. Mindfulness is like a muscle you train. The more you train it, the stronger it becomes. This is challenging for most type-A personalities, a common trait of dental and dental hygiene students. We continuously have conversations with ourselves throughout the day via our thoughts. We cannot be fully present in the moment until we quiet the mind and allow it to rest for a moment. Our families, friends, future patients, and, most importantly, we ourselves will benefit from just a few minutes of a restful mind each day.


Sources

Luoma JB, Villatte JL. Mindfulness in the treatment of suicidal individuals. Cogn Behav Pract 2012;19(2):265-76. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2010.12.003.

Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai 2013;96(Suppl 1):S90-5.

About Gerard Scannell:

Gerard Scannell

Gerard Scannell

Vice President, LSU ASDA

Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Dentistry, Class of 2021

 

Gerard Scannell is a second-year student at Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Dentistry and the Vice President of his school’s American Student Dental Association (ASDA) chapter. He is also involved at the District level on District 5’s meeting planning committee. In his free time, Gerard stars as an extra in movies and has been in as many as 10 movies and TV shows shot in New Orleans!