Need to tame your stress? Try mindfulness

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Lu Quang Pham was just weeks into his first year of medical school at Oakland University last fall when he already felt completely overwhelmed.

There was endless studying and classes. Before moving to Michigan, the California native struggled with panic attacks. Talking to his brother or parents always helped him feel better when one hit, but his family wasn't nearby anymore.

Then Pham, 28, heard about a special training program right on campus designed to help medical students better manage their stress, take care of themselves and prevent burnout. It was called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

Offered by Beaumont Hospital's Center for Mindfulness, Pham took the eight-week class late last year. Today, he feels so much better about the long, stressful road ahead to becoming a doctor. 

Dr. Ruth Lerman, left, and Lucy Sternburgh extend their arms into a yoga position as part of one class.

"I found it extremely valuable," Pham said.  "It taught me to create a habit to dedicate time to my mind and to self-care."

Mindfulness -- a practice once considered on the fringes of treatment options -- is moving into the mainstream these days as an effective tool for reducing stress and even managing chronic pain.

There's a Mindful magazine. Time Magazine put the practice on its cover, calling it a "Mindful Revolution." And schools across the country are incorporating mindfulness into their curriculums to ease student anxiety.

Mindfulness programs are popping up across Michigan. The Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness offers a range of classes and has eight instructors. The University of Michigan Health System offers drop-in classes for staff and students. And the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness has classes for adults and children as young as 9.

"Students are drawn to our classes, retreats and events to learn more

about mindfulness, support their own practice and enhance their sense

of well-being," said Claire Weiner, an instructor at the Ann Arbor Center for Mindfulness.

Beaumont's Center for Mindfulness, which opened in 2014, teaches eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses three times a year to both employees and the public.

Experts say mindfulness is a type of awareness that uses different methods, including yoga and meditation, to help people focus on their thoughts, physical feelings and surroundings in the present moment. But it isn't about relaxation.

Dr. Ruth Lerman, left, and Lucy Sternburgh, center, teach a class as part of Beaumont's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.

"The primary intent behind mindfulness is not relaxation; it's awareness," said Dr. Ruth Lerman, a breast care specialist, mindfulness teacher and medical director of Beaumont Center for Mindfulness. 

And research shows that it works. In a study published in 2012 in the Annals of Surgical Oncology by Lerman, Robert Jarski and several medical students, they found Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction helped improve the recovery of breast cancer survivors, significantly improving their quality of life and reducing symptoms of stress.

Lerman said she did the study because mindfulness wasn't on her colleagues' radar as a tool to help cancer survivors or to manage chronic pain.

"I had to put it in a context and a language that gave it validity," said Lerman.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine. In the late the 1970s, he recruited chronically ill patients who weren't responding to traditional medicine to try a new stress reduction program. It has since become known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Kabat-Zinn went on to found the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Lerman, a three-time breast cancer survivor, discovered Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness during her second bout with cancer. She said while she was emotionally able to process having cancer the first time, it hit her hard the second time. She reacted more like a regular person than a doctor, she said.

"I was scared," she said. 

Looking for tools to cope, Lerman reached out to Rachel Remen, a renowned expert on integrative medicine, who suggested she take up yoga. Yoga eventually led Lerman to Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness. 

"It's about being present in what's happening in the moment," said Lerman, who eventually became an instructor and taught some of her first classes to doctors and cancer survivors.

Lucy Sternburgh, program manager of Beaumont's Center for Mindfulness, studied the mind-body connection during graduate school. She remembers working in Beaumont's cardiac rehab unit where they taught patients physical exercises but never touched on the stress component.

"For me, it was very apparent that there was a very unaddressed emotional and stress issue," said Sternburgh, who discovered Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction while getting her doctorate.

Sternburgh, who at one point managed Beaumont's employee wellness programs, eventually started offering lunchtime mindfulness seminars to Beaumont employees. She said there's an "emotional overload" that health care workers face.

"And it manifests itself as a physical shutdown," said Sternburgh. "For health care workers, it's this sense of 'I have nothing left to give.' It's numbness."

But surveys taken before and after Beaumont's eight-week classes show mindfulness can help.

During a recent orientation session on a blustery day in late January, a group of roughly a dozen people of all ages and races, mostly women, gathered for an orientation session to learn more about Beaumont's eight-week course at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Classes also are offered at Royal Oak Beaumont.

Several people had been referred by the Karmanos Cancer Center. Some were battling breast cancer. One woman was a social worker. Another had heard about the training through a colleague and decided to check it out.

Sternburgh led the group through the history of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and what would be required over the next eight weeks. At-home daily meditation is a requirement of the class. The course also culminates with a day-long silent retreat to really solidify each person's practice.

Alumni and current students of Beaumont's mindfulness program gather for an all-day silent retreat.

During a brief 10-minute meditation session during the orientation, Sternburgh guided the group to pay attention to sounds, surroundings and how each person was feeling. When it was over, one woman began to cry. She'd recently lost her daughter, after both her husband and son had died. 

"I had to let it out," she said.

Sternburgh believes one reason mindfulness has grown in popularity is because so many people feel isolated in today's chaotic world.

"I really do think there's an epidemic of loneliness and isolation that is painful for people," she said. "And so much of digital and social media doesn't fill that void of meaningfulness and connection."

Surveys both before and after Beaumont's classes have found a decrease in burnout and increased feelings of peacefulness, said Sternburgh.

"It’s like they’ve been looking for the answers outwardly," said Sternburgh. "They’ve rarely seen their inner resources."

Lexi Gird, a graduate student who lives in Hazel Park, took Beaumont's course last year and calls it a "profound experience." She's still practicing what she learned, practicing daily meditation while attending a weekly meditation class and yoga.

"I just loved the whole process," she said. "Just being with the group and having just a dedicated space just to check in every week – that was designated for stress reduction – was just really important."

Gird even took her training a step further when she attended a five-day silent retreat -- which includes no cellphones and no talking at all -- at a center in Clarkston.

"It really solidified my practice," Gird said.

Dr. Ruth Lerman, center, leads an exercise during a mindfulness class.

Lerman admits that mindfulness isn't for everyone. It takes practice. And Beaumont's classes aren't cheap -- they're $350 for an eight-week session, though scholarships are available.

But with home practice, "it's wonderfully transformational," said Lerman.

As for Pham, he's still practicing what he learned and thinks more medical students should take the training. He likes to do a walking meditation as he walks to class, focusing on how he's feeling at that moment.

He hasn't had a panic attack since he took the mindfulness course.

"I feel much less stressed," he said. "It's had such a positive impact on my well-being."

What is Mindfulness

  • It's an awareness of your thoughts, physical sensations, and surroundings.
  • It can include yoga and different types of meditation, including sitting meditation or walking meditation. 
  • Daily home practice often is required to bolster the practice.
  • Studies have found it can decrease stress and improve quality of life.