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Hacking Your Potential: How to Successfully Work with Challenges

Hacking Your Potential: How to Successfully Work with Challenges
Featured Speaker:
Rheinila Fernandes, MD
Rheinila Fernandes, MD. is a psychiatrist at MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling. She has developed several initiatives at MIT focused on prevention and student wellness including Motivate and Move, Wellness Buddies, and Calm-to-Go which have introduced dancing, yoga, cooking classes, neuroscience, and sensory strategies to dorms. Dr. Fernandes taught Hacking Your Potential during the MIT Independent Activities Period (IAP).

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

Melanie Cole: Welcome to Conversations with MIT medical, I'm Melanie Cole. And today we're discussing hacking your potential support for students working with challenges that are unprecedented in these times. Joining me is Dr. Rheinila Fernandes. She's a Psychiatrist at MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling. Dr. Fernandes, it's such a pleasure to have you with us today. Before we get into what it means to hack your potential, can you give us some of the challenges that students around the country are facing right now and specifically at a high pressure environment like MIT?

Dr. Fernandes: Thanks so much for talking with me. And of course I think there's been so many transitions changes that students have had to deal with. You know, grad students having to leave their living spaces and just very, very short periods of time moving either back home or into other apartments where they're sharing space, not having personal space. I think for graduate students or other, even undergrads doing research at MIT. One of the things I think that can be really, really hard is really having to like refocus research entirely. So for people doing hands on research or experimental research, you know, not even doing what they kind of had anticipated doing a while ago. And then of course I've been also thinking about, you know, students graduating, you know, not knowing kind of what comes next for jobs. I mean, I think job hunting can be hard anyway just in terms of managing the uncertainties, but I think just all the uncertainty that's been present just adds another layer of challenge on top of everything.

Host: Well, it certainly does and so many people are facing these challenges today and it's hard to stay motivated. It's hard to prioritize things that you do still have to do. What does it mean when we hear the term hack your potential? What does that mean?

Dr. Fernandes: Yeah, for me, I mean I really think about it as, you know, tap into your potential, being able to kind of give your best effort in the moment or even just stay engaged in the moment, right? It doesn't, to me, it doesn't mean being perfect or you know, having to accomplish some huge thing, but really just being able to kind of stay engaged you know, especially while doing things that are new or in this situation, having to manage uncertainty, you know, being able to adopt a mindset or uncomfortable feelings that can come up so that people can stay engaged and in the scale. You know, in my mind, you know, learning to access your potential is closely tied with, you know, learning to manage challenges more effectively. And at MIT in particular, there's no shortage of challenge and you know, in this time right now there's absolutely no shortage of challenges. But when I headed kind of initially thought about hacking your potential, I had done it in the context of developing a course, which I taught recently in January at MIT.

Because I was encountering, you know, very bright, very talented students with very high expectations of themselves and really noticing that, you know, despite kind of all of these things, sometimes there were certain themes that were coming up. In terms of barriers that were affecting their ability to really engage and be able to access their strengths. And so that's part of the reason that I designed the course and I really started to notice that there's a way in which there are certain skills that can be helpful to do it. And so part of kind of my thinking was using some of the work that I've noticed being helpful with individual therapy with students. Also kind of in a group setting as well.

Host: So when you were planning this and doing this, and it's fascinating to me what you're saying, how are students hacking their potential? Tell us a little bit about what you saw and some of the suggestions that you're making. Why is the unconscious mind so important in this? What did you see the students doing?

Dr. Fernandes: Unfortunately, I don't think we have like enough time in this podcast to go into the, you know, the detailed neurobiology. But I think helping understand that our biology can set us up to avoid or escape uncomfortable feelings and that that can lead to a quick fix behaviors can be really helpful. Because one of the things I've noticed is that kind of a cycle that can happen with students, like, especially around high pressure times, like studying for qualifying exams where students may find themselves doing things like watching Netflix or surfing the internet, sleeping more than usual, or kind of doing productive procrastination, you know, doing experiments they don't really need to kind of to avoid the thing that's causing them so much stress. And the more that they avoid, then they kind of rob themselves the opportunity to get the breadth or the depth of knowledge that they need to study for the quals. Most of the cycle that can happen that kind of increases anxiety. And so what I've noticed is working with students around, you know, the thoughts that come up, tolerating the feelings that come up and then really being conscious of the behaviors that they engage in can really be helpful and really thinking about is exposure.

So exposure to the thing that makes you most kind of anxious is actually what's most needed to kind of shift that process. And what I find really is so foundational is mindfulness. It's such a useful scale. People talk about mindfulness all the time, but as I'm talking about it right now, I'm referring to, you know, learning the skill of paying attention in the present moment non-judgmentally with acceptance. And the object that you choose can really vary. People can be mindful of their body sensations, they can be mindful of their breath, they can be mindful of their thoughts or feelings, but basically developing more capacity to tolerate uncomfortable feelings just in each of micro-moment. Realizing, ah, this too shall pass, can sometimes be helpful to engage in things that people typically pull away from. And I think that that's really part of the process. So the thoughts piece, you know, I think often helping people really realize, Oh, are they expecting themselves to work, you know, 24, seven as they're preparing for their qualifying exam. Well now maybe it's more reasonable to expect for six hours and you can do other things. But helping kind of to rescale expectations in terms of kind of the thoughts that have people have from themselves can also be very useful.

Host: So continue along those lines. Dr. Fernandez, what other strategies can help decrease avoidance when students are facing these challenges? Tell us some of the strategies that you would recommend that can be particularly helpful during this sheltering in place because of COVID. What recommendations? You've mentioned mindfulness, which is so important and listeners can listen to another podcast on mindfulness at the MIT medical website. Please tell us what else we can do.

Dr. Fernandes: Yeah, I mean I think one of the things that I've been noticing people are finding most helpful is actually creating a structure, a routine in place. So having a time that they're getting up or maybe even scheduling time with friends to work kind of in parallel, and zoom. So having or maybe you know, having a particular time of the day that they're going out or exercising or doing videos, but trying to create some sense of structure or routine to help, you know, kind of stay on track. I think that that's something that can be useful, especially if people are doing things that are anxiety provoking and they might feel like this urge to kind of pull away from it. The second thing is, is exercise. I mean I just mentioned it just now in terms of the context of structure, but just movement that there's some really good evidence in terms of benefits for mood and anxiety. Trying to see if there is a way to kind of build in a time to move over the course of the day. I think that that can be actually a good preventative measure. I think also staying in contact with students, you know, advisors or with colleagues or professors or friends around kind of making expectations or meeting expectations if things are too loose. I think sometimes it can be a little bit hard. So if people can build more accountability, okay I'll get this, you know, draft to you next week or I think that that can also be really useful as well.

Host: Wow, those were great strategies, really great advice. Before we wrap up, summarize for us hacking your potential and working with students that have these challenges right now that nobody expected. And as I said in my intro, unprecedented what's going on right now. So if you would for us, Dr. Fernandes, please give us your best advice, your, your summary of this, what you want the take home message to be about unlocking our potential and being as motivated, being the best we can be right now during this period where we couldn't have predicted this.

Dr. Fernandes: I think really thinking about it as this is a challenging time. We're all in it together. You know, we're trying to, you know, work on it. And I think having a mindset where you might, you know, kind of flexible enough, there may be days that go, well, there may be days that go, you know, not as well, it doesn't have to be perfect, but you know, doing the best as you can to just stay engaged despite having challenges. Right? So I think figuring out, okay, what are kind of the types of thoughts that you can have in terms of just forgiving yourself, you know, tolerating your feelings, talking with your friends about, you know, what you're going through, how they're feeling, and then, you know, kind of structuring your day so that you can kind of engage in behaviors where you can take care of yourself. I mean, I think those are, you know, in my mind, the key things that you can do during this time. And I want people, you know, students to know at MIT medical student mental health and counseling, we are certainly here for you. You know, we're here to support you as we're going through this time. I think it's important for students to really know that they're not alone. And that students can definitely reach out to us. Clinicians are always available. All students have to do is call 617-253-4481.

Host: Thank you so much, Dr. Fernandes for joining us and sharing your incredible expertise at this time. You gave some really much needed information and that concludes this episode of Conversations with MIT Medical. For more information on student mental health and counseling, please visit our website at Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast and all the other MIT Medical podcasts. I'm Melanie Cole.