Busy medical students try ten-minute meditation to reduce stress

Kristyne Thomas
April 13, 2017
two students sit amid a theater-like auditorium of empty chairs with their eyes closed as they meditate
Second-year medical student Elliott Calvert, left, and first-year student Matthew DeMarco meditate between classes. Photos by Sarah Pack

First-year medical student Matthew DeMarco draws in a deep breath. He clears his mind from the last three hours of lecture on renal gastrointestinal systems. For the first time all morning, he lets go of the energy and anxiety rolling through the room.

On the projection screen in front of him is a simple timer to keep his mind from roaming. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. He keeps this steady rhythm – in and out – for 10 minutes, his breath drawing his mind into a state of peace.

As a new medical student, DeMarco expected the stressful pace of a challenging career choice. What he didn’t expect was that learning to meditate would be part of it. He’s participating in a new program started by the College of Medicine to promote student health at Medical University of South Carolina.

“Before I started meditating, I would get anxious or stressed when I did new things or important things. What it has helped with most is being able to use the breath to calm down and being able to step back and take a better perspective when I do get stressed out.”

Second-year medical student Elliott Calvert says meditation has helped him better control his mood. “If I was feeling down, I would find a reason for why I felt down. I would then feed that feeling by giving it logic. The biggest thing that watching your thoughts over a long period of time will do is show you how nonfactual the thoughts are while you are feeling that emotion.”

Using guided meditation, medical students at the MUSC learn to use their breath as a tool to relieve stress and better control their emotions. Being able to calm one’s self with something as simple as breathing is just one thing medical students can do to fight back against the ever increasing rates of mental health problems among medical professionals.

Not only will mindful meditation help combat potential mental health problems, but it will also help make them better physicians, says program coordinator Madeline Scully. “Research shows that meditation grows the gray matter in areas of the brain that improve focus, retention of information and empathy. These benefits can easily translate into their practice by improving active listening skills when performing patient intake, remaining calm in stressful situations and staying focused on the present situation fully.”

Recent studies also have shown that medical students and physicians have a higher risk than the general public for developing mental health issues such as depression, stress and anxiety. According to a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association, 27 percent of medical students experienced depression or depressive symptoms and 11 percent had suicidal thoughts. Of medical students who screened positive for depression, about 16 percent sought psychiatric treatment.  

The concern for mental health among medical students inspired leaders at MUSC to create a wellness program. The idea was to be proactive in student wellness overall with mindfulness and meditation being just one aspect of the program. “Mindfulness fits into the wellness program’s ‘mind’ section of their mission, which includes intellectual, emotional, financial and spiritual wellness,” says Scully. Part of the initiative this year involved the College of Medicine Cup, a health and wellness day with food, giveaways and faculty-student athletic competitions to help students incorporate fitness and wellness into their lives.

Scully says finding time in their schedules when students would be most likely to participate was difficult. Since they only have 15 minutes between classes, 10 minutes for meditation would have to suffice. She and students participating in the mindfulness program say that's plenty of time to make a positive impact.

“If you want to improve your quality of life, you want less stress. If you want to be happier, take 10 minutes a day,” she says.

In order for 10 minutes to really make a difference, Scully emphasizes the importance of being consistent. “It’s like exercise. You can’t jump on the treadmill once and expect to lose 10 pounds. You can’t meditate just once and expect it to have any kind of lasting effect.”

Every day from 11:45 to 11:55 a.m., students can receive guided meditation using a media app called Headspace. The app teaches students how to control and focus on their breath, which enables them to better control their emotions and relieve stress and anxiety. Headspace has the slogan, “treat your head right,” and is available to everyone. The creators of Headspace offer a 10-day free trial, after which a subscription is required. The College of Medicine Student Wellness program purchased one subscription, which means students only have one login. To prevent students from having to purchase their own subscription, the app is run on a projector.

With control of the breath, people can switch from an anxious feeling back into a calm state of being. Over time, people can use breath work to lower their heart rate. Students who have gone consistently report being able to notice and control their stress and anxiety levels. 

An immediate goal of the wellness program is to fight challenges and get more resources. DeMarco says one major challenge for the program now is to get people involved. “We are trying to find ways to do maybe a club or have meetings or bring in a speaker to sort of talk about how the last couple of weeks have been for them.” 

In preparation for exams and national boards, Scully would like to be able to offer more resources. “We will offer some more support once students are not in the classroom anymore and as they leave to go study for their exams. I’m going to try to offer more intensive and focused sessions. We are hoping it will gain traction over the years and we will figure out how to best accommodate people and their schedules."

There is a wealth of information out there and much of it is science-based, says Scully. She wants to show and prove to students the benefits of mindful meditation. “At the beginning of the year we showed them an eight-minute TED Talk by Sara Lazar that talks about what happens to the brain when you meditate, and how it can help you not only through stressful times, but also just in life. I think it is really cool, especially for medical students, to see the science behind it.”

The wellness program is designed to create a healthier community and lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress. 

DeMarco says, “I think that’s the whole wellness goal, to make it more of the culture, to make all wellness more of a cultural thing and more than just a couple kids who go work out and are healthy, to ingrain it more in the fabric of the curriculum and the culture.”