Talking mindfulness

An interview with James Groves, final year medical student at UCL and co-founder of Mindful medics. Here he delves into what mindfulness is and the many benefits of making it a part of your life!

When was it that you originally became interested in mindfulness?

We all know the stressful environment that medical school can foster… Well, it was experiencing this stress in my first year which essentially led me to start practicing mindfulness.

I’m someone who has always been quite introspective and analytical. In particular, I’ve always found myself looking for the “best strategy” when doing anything: the best strategy for playing a particular sport, the best strategy for exam revision, the best strategy for playing FIFA.. anything! At this stressful time in first year, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed at cracking the best strategy for the most fundamental things in life – like how to keep a healthy and happy mind.

This was really how I came to find out about mindfulness. Google told me it was a way of training the mind and had been taught across cultures for thousands of years, but it was something I had never heard of. I was initially sceptical for that reason, but thought I’d give it a try – because let’s be honest, what did I have to lose? I started to read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s manual Full Catastrophe Living to get to grips with it all.

The concept of developing an ability to live more in the present immediately struck a chord with me as a sensible way of approaching life. And more importantly, I soon started observing the real life benefits of a daily mindfulness practice; I started feeling more balanced, composed and able to savour the small things in life. The intrusive thinking of medical school stress had calmed down, and crucially, I had found a fundamental strategy to help me navigate life.

As it turns out – now over five years on – setting aside daily mindfulness has been key to my enjoyment of life. I’ve discovered that when you’re present and actually paying attention to whatever you’re doing, you are likely to do it better, and you’ll also enjoy it a lot more.

Why do you think mindfulness is important for medics specifically?

There’s two big reasons. First of all, we’re a stressed out bunch! It’s no secret that the rate of mental ill health in the medical profession is sky-high, and that’s no surprise given the emotional, mental and physical demands of the job. If you have a tool in your locker at the start of your career which can help deal with those demands and keep a clearer mind then that’s a huge advantage. We need to remember that a doctor can only really take care of their patients to the best of their ability if they look after themselves first.

Secondly, the rapidly growing evidence base on the use of mindfulness in medical care shows the impact this training can have for patients coping with innumerable chronic health conditions – from diabetes to depression. If a doctor has a personal understanding of mindfulness through their own mindfulness practice, then they may be in a position to share this; these doctors can provide their patients with an extra tool to optimise physiology and mental state, alongside the core medical or surgical treatments the patient is already receiving.

What would you have to say to the mindfulness sceptic?

Scepticism can be a great thing! When we run our sessions at “Mindful Medic” we actually encourage our participants to challenge us and disagreement is emphasised to be a key element of our discussions. Mindfulness is all about challenging assumptions and listening to one’s own instincts rather than blindly following. If people are sceptical, it shows that they are thinking for themselves and so are more likely to apply this independent attitude to their own mindfulness practice. Hopefully any scepticism is balanced with an open mind which is also willing to listen to new ideas – and is open to the possibility that these ideas could enhance the way they see the world.

It’s important to appreciate that mindfulness is a practice rather than a philosophy or just a “nice idea”. And in order to have an informed opinion on mindfulness, it is necessary to experience the practice for yourself. On top of this, I would say that almost all misunderstandings and objections come from overthinking the practice – which is at its core very simple –  to train the mind to be in the present moment.

So what is Mindful Medic and why did you start it?

Mindful Medic is a social enterprise I co-founded with my friend Will Gao. Our aim was to demystify mindfulness by providing high-quality teaching in a way that is relevant to the modern medic.

We had both benefited hugely from mindfulness in our own ways, so in 2016 we agreed it was about time to get it out there more! We wanted other medical students to have the opportunity to benefit in a similar way, and to make this happen we developed our mindfulness training course, specifically designed for medical students: “30for30”. The aim of this free 30-day course is to give medical students the opportunity to experience the practice of mindfulness and yoga – and to experiment with the effects this can have on their mind and body. This even includes providing measurements of physiological changes as they meditate, through Heart Rate Variability monitoring.

We continue to deliver the course, and this year it has been really great to welcome our friend Caitlin Griffiths to the Mindful Medic team. Caitlin is a passionate yoga practitioner who trained as an instructor in India, so she’s come on board to teach the yoga component of the course. We believe this to be a winning combination; now as well as learning the “ABCs” of mindfulness, participants also get a great insight into the wonderful practice of Yoga.

Tell us a bit about your Moodle platform “MBBS Explore Mindfulness”

This was a project I started working on in collaboration with the medical school in late 2016. Our aim was to get something online which could act as an accessible gateway for students to find out a bit more about mindfulness and – more broadly –  to provide an online hub for promoting good mental health among medical students.

The site’s content is tailored to UCL medical students. In particular, it’s designed to accommodate those people who want to sort of “dip their toe in” and give mindfulness a go – without needing to commit to a training course. Its features are pretty varied: from information on the basics of what mindfulness is, to the science behind its proven benefits, to accounts from doctors speaking about how mindfulness improves their clinical practice. The site also contains over 200 minutes of audio content, so the user will never be short of opportunities to practice.

We launched the site in September 2018 and have enjoyed success; all UCL students are now able to access it at any time by searching “MBBS Explore Mindfulness” into the Moodle Courses search bar. I would say the best way to get involved is to get on our Facebook page (MBBS Explore Mindfulness) and we’ll get you automatically enrolled onto the platform so that it shows up on your homepage. So if you’re interested in learning more be sure to give us a like and we’ll do the rest!

By Asha Dave