The last few years have been tough on everyone. The stressors of modern life combined with the uncertainty of a pandemic have created high levels of anxiety for many. As more of us experience stress and anxiety daily, the practice of mindfulness is presented as a way to manage those feelings in a healthy way. While we cannot alleviate all stress, we can choose to respond to it in a healthy way. Mindfulness can also help us to identify what stressors cause extreme discomfort providing an opportunity to see which of these high stress factors can be minimized in our lives.
While some may dismiss the topic as a trendy method of self-care, Dr. Carol Sommer wants us to know that the positive results of being mindful are quantified in the latest research from the fields of psychology, counseling and neuroscience. Sommer is foundation professor of counselor education at Eastern Kentucky University.
“The research is clear,” she said. “Regular mindfulness practice can help reduce hypertension, moderate anxiety, improve cognitive functioning and boost immunity.”
Sommer designed a graduate course in mindfulness practices during her 2019 sabbatical that she would go on to teach during the spring 2020 semester. She also spent the sabbatical developing a manuscript on mindfulness in counselor education. The manuscript would be finished once the spring 2020 class concluded. The pandemic that hit mid-semester would prove very timely because students would learn first-hand the value of mindfulness in stressful times. This unique moment in time led to revisions in the manuscript to include some student’s reactions to the pandemic and the role that mindfulness played.
“With EKU moving all classes to virtual formats, we were able to continue our class,” Sommer said. “As the semester went on, we collectively realized how important it was to be taking a class in mindfulness where we practiced meditation during these highly stressful and uncertain times.”
Three students joined her to finish her mindfulness manuscript and present the findings at the Association for Humanistic Counseling Conference in June 2021. A colleague, Dr. Angela Spiers, has joined in on the research, and this manuscript is currently in review with a national peer-reviewed scholarly journal.
In November 2021, the Kentucky Counseling Association awarded Sommer with the Dr. Daya Singh Sandhu Innovation and Research in Counseling Award.
Mindfulness is a simple concept, Sommer said.
“Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening in the present moment and giving it your full attention without judgment” she said. “Sometimes it's hard to be mindful in our culture because we are encouraged in many ways to multitask, do more, and see life as a competition.”
She references the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Jon Kabat-Zinn who said we should strive to better balance our being with our doing.
Mindfulness can be practiced in a formal way, such as sitting in a quiet room while deep breathing and meditating, which is how graduate student Brian Bates prefers to practice.
“I have found that early mornings and in the evenings can be nice for me because everything is in a more peaceful and quiet state for the most part,” Bates said. He added that he hopes he can teach mindfulness meditation and T’ai Chi approaches to future clients that he serves as a professional counselor.
But some of Sommer’s former students indicate they practice mindfulness while participating in everyday tasks.
“I use informal mindfulness techniques almost every day when I eat, as well as when I clean once I am home,” said graduate student Chiah Davis. “The informal techniques allow me to still be busy and get things done, but also give me time to reflect, take my time and slow down, relax from the day and get enjoyment out of things that usually seem like a chore.”
Sommer hopes to continue educating the campus community in various mindfulness practices.
“Walking a labyrinth is a wonderful way to engage in mindfulness practice,” she said. “There are so many beautiful spots on campus where a labyrinth could be located. My wish would be that a collaborative effort to install a labyrinth here would provide opportunities to continue mindfulness practice for faculty, staff and students for years to come.”