Selected Podcast

Mindfulness and Self-Care for MIT Students

Erik Marks, MSW, discusses mindfulness and self-care.
Mindfulness and Self-Care for MIT Students
Featured Speaker:
Erik Marks, MSW, LICSW
Erik Marks, L.I.C.S.W. is a Clinical Social Worker at MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling Services. He received is M.S.W. from Simmons College School of Social Work. His professional areas of expertise include major mental illness, mindfulness and stress/anxiety reduction, impact of institutionalized discrimination, identity issues. Outside of his work at MIT Medical, Erik enjoys spending time outdoors with his family and playing all kinds of music

Learn more aboutĀ Erik Marks, MSW, LICSW

Introduction: It's time for Conversations with MIT Medical, Care For the Community. Here's your host, Melanie Cole.

Melanie Cole: Welcome to Conversation with MIT Medical. I'm Melanie Cole. Today we're discussing mindfulness and self care for MIT students. Joining me is Erik Marks. He's a Clinical Social Worker with MIT Medical. Erik, I'm so glad to have you with us today and many of us feel stress from time to time and certainly right now, but really all the time and students more so. How do you know if the stress that you're feeling is taking a toll on your psychological or your physiological self? What are some signs to recognize that we know the stress is really having an effect on us?

Dr. Marks: Hi Melanie. It's a really great question. I think one of the things that's most helpful is paying attention and having a practice of paying attention regularly. Most of us think while we're awake that we are paying attention to everything going on around us. But when we take a few minutes to sit still, calm all of our movements, stop talking, which I can't do right now. We start to observe our own internal process and really in the long run, that's the goal of any kind of mindfulness practice, at least for our purposes. So we sit still and it's a training tool. It's not the goal. We sit still and we pay attention to what's happening and we start listening to our own inner dialogue and it'll tell us a lot. It'll tell us the things that we're worried about. Our body might tell us things if our shoulders are tense, if we feel a vacuous pit in our inner center of our trunk, our core.

If we feel overly tired, during this time, with social distancing, a lot of people feel the disconnect that we take for granted every day. And so many people are feeling it in terms of feeling more sleepy, a decrease in motivation, which is really challenging for our MIT students. You want to be able to stay on task and focus. And when there's global anxiety and global worry, it's so easy with all of our media interconnectedness to get caught up in it. So paying attention, taking a few minutes even, and just to notice where there's tension in your body, where there is perhaps the absence of tension, sort of like an emptiness. If we feel lethargic most days, even if we have enough sleep or if we constantly feel keyed up or on edge, vigilant all the time. Those are all, those are cues that we're stressed in some way.

Host: Well thank you for that answer. So sometimes stress can be a healthy thing because it motivates us. And as you say, lack of motivation. Explain a little bit more about the concept of mindfulness and the questions that we can ask ourselves so that we're aware of our own behaviors as you just described and tell us the difference between mindfulness and meditation because I think they're two different things, but they can go hand in hand.

Dr. Marks: That's a really great distinction that most of us don't make. And I even forget it sometimes. So the way that I think of meditation is a focusing and concentrating exercise, which is useful. It's really useful for students at MIT and other places. So meditation for me is, is a time when you sit down and you focus just on one thing your breath. Mindfulness is very similar in the sense that you're filling your mind with one thing. The breath is the hardest to focus on. It's fully automated. We don't need to do anything. And so our mind wanders and that's okay. You label your thoughts as thinking you come back. But sometimes that's way too intense, especially when we have a lot of things we're worried about. We might be worried about our friends in the apartment that we're staying in. We might be worried about family. And so having nothing to focus on can be too much. It's not a helpful practice.

We kind of spin and just kind of get caught up in the worry. So mindfulness practices can be something a little bit more, having a little bit more content. So things like cooking or cleaning can be a useful focal point for practice. So you have content that you're focused on, the meal that you're preparing, cleaning the bathroom or disinfecting as you come in and out of the house. Probably not going out, but certainly coming back in. So filling your mind with other content. The content itself needs to be neutral. So if we're filling it with songs we love, the problem is it pulls for a lot of emotion, which can feel good. It can feel distracting and distracting is not a problem necessarily, but it's not. It's not calming. And so neutral tasks are really helpful. Even if you walk if you have a small room walking slowly in a circle and just paying attention, just filling your mind with the activity, pay attention to the way your limbs move, the way your breath is moving, where to step and where not to step. And so whenever your mind wanders, you label the thoughts as thinking. It's just thinking and you come back.

Host: So then how does that help us enhance our everyday lives? You've just given us a really good mindfulness practice for beginners. As you said, walking around the room, paying attention, focusing on one thing. But what does that do for us, Erik? How does that help us to really ground ourselves or to be able to look inward and see what it is that's worrying us and taking its toll?

Dr. Marks: Yes, how do we apply it? So the point of remaining mindful is to notice the thoughts are arising and seeing what they are and not going with them. So we might have lots of worries about what's happening tomorrow, what's happening with graduation. My parents can't come or friends can't be there. And so we notice all this chatter and because human beings are meaning making creatures, we can incur a fairly high level of stress simply by modeling in our minds. And that's certainly a term that the vast majority of MIT students, if not all of them, really get the idea, of making a model and experimenting with it as an analog for what happens to our bodies in life. So we have this amazing machinery, organic, but our brains can simulate a world where commencement happens virtually and we can have a lot of feelings about it. And so by, by recognizing that it's not happening right now, commencement is not happening right now. I don't mean that it's not going to happen, but that in the moment where we're modeling it in our mind and having a reaction to it, it's not real, but our brain treats it that way.

And so it may release corticosteroids, adrenaline, other neurotransmitters that then act on our body as if it's happening. So part of the reason for cultivating a mindfulness practice is to be able to notice, Oh, I'm modeling stuff again. Oh, look at that. I'm modeling the worst case scenario and I'm having a physiological reaction to it. And that's taxing. So if I can back away from the modeling saying, wow, that's just a model and it's intense, but you know what? It's just a model. And I'm going to set it aside. I'm going to try and do this conscious relaxation, which is a little bit different than mindfulness, but so I'm going to take some long, slow, deep breaths. Recognize that I was just in a model in my mind that is causing me to feel stress. My chest is tight, my stomach feels funny, my muscles are tense and I need to walk away from the model for a bit. So the reason that mindfulness practice is useful is that it decreases the unnecessary taxation on our system that is incurred by worrying about the future.

Host: Well that was an excellent explanation and I felt myself and all of the things that I do while you were saying that, Erik, so what do you emphasize as far as students self care? What else would you like students to know about taking care of themselves at this time? And what else do you find helpful for people living in distressing situations? Speak about self care and the ways that we can look at those worries and put them into perspective for us.

Dr. Marks: Thanks Melanie. I think in the same way that mindfulness gives us a snapshot of our internal processes in a given moment. Having a regular schedule allows us to bump up against the structure. It's self-imposed, which can be hard to maintain, but by saying to myself, tomorrow I'm going to get up at eight I know that sounds early and I'm going to begin my day and I'm going to schedule things in Google calendar or whatever you want to use on paper. I like paper, I'm going to schedule things, and then as the hours go by, when I haven't attended to them, I can see what's going by. So many of our MIT students will say, great, I've got all day tomorrow. It's Saturday. I've got nothing scheduled. I'll finish the work. And a phrase like that that is so global is really not helpful because part of our brain says, you're going to finish that mountain of stuff?

No, I think I'm going to help you out of that because that looks like way too difficult of a task. So instead we're going to find YouTube and we're going to watch that for five hours. That's not true for every MIT student, but I do hear it often. So one of the ways to take care of ourselves is to build a schedule that is reasonable. And we have many people who are used to achieving a lot. And so it's easy to put way too much in the schedule, feel overwhelmed by it, then be shut down by it and not get much done. And then maybe there's some self criticism that happens. But by creating a schedule, just trying to stay mindful through the day and even of the self criticism and backing away from that and saying, wait a minute, this isn't effective. So what do I do differently? Let's choose a smaller chunk. I'll get up at eight, I'll go for a little walk, I'll have some food. And then from nine to nine 15 I'll work on thermodynamics. At the end of the 15 minutes, I can choose to take another 15 minute chunk or I can stop. If I'm starting to feel overwhelmed, these may seem like absurdly small chunks of time. And yet in the middle of a global pandemic, it's going to be harder for most people.

There's some exceptions, but most of us will find it challenging. So one of the ways to take care of yourself, have a schedule, try and stick with it. Even if you don't feel hungry, eat regularly. Our systems need fuel without fuel. It makes it much harder to focus and concentrate. Stay hydrated. And to some extent that is in line with how we were prior to social distancing. Try to maintain a similar amount of contact with others. It will be different of course, but get on zoom or whatever other medium you like and interact with others, holding ourselves to or people don't like the word discipline sometimes. But following a course is really helpful. So scheduling time with others. I know people who've set up lab meetings in the morning, morning crossword and coffee get togethers, doesn't have to be more than one person. But having someone else who you know is waiting for you, will help both you and them stay connected. And connectedness is so important for most of us.

Host: Well, it certainly is. That was so well put and I love that you talked about that self criticism and the negative self talk because that is just really dastardly for our systems and we all do it and especially right now when we're not feeling that motivated. Give us a brief wrap-up, Erik, what you would like us to know about the importance of mindfulness now and really all the time why it's so important that we practice this, that we learn how to breathe, that we learn to find what's going on inside so that we can be more motivated and take better care of ourselves.

Dr. Marks: I'm glad you emphasized the criticism Melonie. In any situation, at any point in time, we have the opportunity to come back to ourselves and notice the way that we treat ourselves internally and many of us are raised, whether it's directly or indirectly with some form of criticism that we internalize. And so noticing when we're being harsh or mean and backing off from that, it's not licensed to do nothing when we back away from the criticism. But it is taking away a layer of stress that the energy from which when we recover it by not being harsh or mean punishing of ourselves, we can use for trying to figure out. And this is one of the reasons I love working with MIT students, is they understand the scientific method. So if I take away this variable, harsh self criticism, and I take the energy regained from that and I look at what's happening and I say, Oh look, okay, when I sit down to work, I find myself feeling nervous, I feel distracted and I moved to something else. So I'm just going to stay still and I'm going to watch the nervousness or the anxiety. Criticism go by and I'm a state present at that keyboard and I'm going to keep typing. So all of these different things, self care, if we pay attention, learn more about ourselves. And ultimately that's my goal. And I think at Student Mental Health and Counseling Services, that's all of our goals. If we can help people learn more about their processes, we can help people be and feel more effective. You feel, and are more effective in your day to day life, and it becomes a pattern or a rhythm that you can maintain and then build on.

Host: It certainly does. And thank you so much, Erik, for coming on with us and really telling us about mindfulness and why it's so important for us. Thank you so much. For more information on Student Mental Health and Counseling Services at MIT Medical, please visit And that concludes Conversations with MIT Medical. Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast and all the other MIT Medical podcasts. I'm Melanie Cole.