Journeys with mindfulness

Bio: Chloe Asker (she/they) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter, UK, funded by the South West Doctoral Training Partnership, ESRC. Their research interests centre around mindfulness, (self & community) care, therapeutic geographies, vulnerability, atmospheres and the breath.

Storytelling is ‘a way of redrawing maps and finding new destinations’ (Frank, 1995, p. 53), in that stories offer a way to reflect and come to terms with new ways of seeing ourselves and our lives (Salter and Newkirk, 2019). My doctoral research was based on lived experiences of, or journeys with, mindfulness. As part of the research I worked with a group of participants, tracing their experiences of mindfulness as both a meditation practice but also as a way of living. Over the course of two mindfulness courses and follow up interviews I witnessed the transformative effect that mindfulness had on their lives. Giving my participants a space in which to recount their relationship with the practice offered an opportunity to reflect on their journey, which in turn prompted them to realise the deep effects mindfulness had on their life. One participant was nervous to meet with me, she thought she had nothing to say about her relationship with mindfulness:

“I said to [my partner] “oh Chloe’s coming to see me, but I don’t think I’m going to be much of a project, to write about! I’m not that interesting, because I haven’t done anything else, any of the things!” But actually it’s been a revelation for me to talk to you cos I [laughs}….”

“Yeah, so it’s another blessing really that you’ve come, and I’ve been able to find inside me the things that mindfulness has done for me that I didn’t know.”

[Transcript from interview with a participant 5/6/2019]

As she spoke it became clear that her journey, although at times challenging, had certainly been transformative.

Frustrated with the unreadability of a 100,000 word PhD thesis, I wanted to create an output from the research that would be short, enjoyable to read, interactive and easy to share. I was keen to create something accessible that could communicate the transformative experiences that my participants had shared with me. I also wanted to gently push back against the overwhelming and overarching critiques of mindfulness as ‘McMindfulness’ (Purser, 2019), to show that the practice could be life changing for those involved. I decided to write a zine based on a chapter of my thesis that explores their journeys. I have experimented with the zine format throughout my doctoral research – finding the open format and structure useful to creative and participatory research. I was also inspired by Sarah Marie Hall’s (2017) zine ‘Everyday Austerity’. However, lacking in artist competency myself, I worked with an illustrator, Isabel Mae Abrams, to design the zine together. To fund the project I used a top-up to my Research and Training Grant (SWDTP, ESRC) to fund the illustration and publication of the zine.

The zine stories several journeys with mindfulness based on the participants’ stories (including my own). To make the booklet interactive and mindful in its format, we worked on a colouring page in the centre fold, along with pauses and a body scan meditation at the end. The zine also comes with three illustrated postcards – you can use these however you’d like. But one option is to write your experiences with mindfulness/meditation and send them back to us in order to continue the conversation on the benefits (or frustrations with) the practice (if you’d like to do this use our contact page to request more information).

Journeys with mindfulness is free to download here as a pdf, or you can read it on issu here. You can also request a printed copy of the zine and postcards here (these are free!)

We would love to know what you think of the zine! Get in contact with us here.

Please note: this blog post has also been posted on the SWDTP website.

References

Frank, A. W. (1995) The wounded storyteller: body, illness and ethics. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Marie Hall, S. (2017) Everyday Austerity. https://everydayausterity.wordpress.com/zine/

Purser, R. (2019) McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Watkins Media.

Salter, L., and Newkirk, J. (2019) Collective Storytelling for Health: A Three-Part Story. Storytelling, Self, Society 15(1): 108–129.

How To Stop Putting Tasks Off

Sarah Lane is an Integrative Counsellor and Mindfulness Facilitator based in the Wellbeing Centre

It’s very natural to put off important tasks in favour of other activities which may seem more interesting or enjoyable. In fact, research suggests that approximately 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators and 75-95% of university students procrastinate. Sometimes this is a conscious decision but it can also become a habit. It will often lead to negative consequences and can wrongly be mistaken for laziness. However, there are some simple things you can do to address procrastination:

  1. Find your optimum time and place to work. Choose your most productive, energised or creative time of day for challenging tasks. Also consider in which environments you achieve the most and are least distracted.
  2. You probably already use “To Do” lists but it’s worth considering a couple of extra points about them. How realistic are you being about the number of tasks you hope to achieve in a particular time frame? If we constantly feel that we are not achieving everything we have intended to, this can leave us feeling demoralised, stressed and unmotivated. It’s better to feel satisfied for having been able to complete a shorter list for the day. If your initial list doesn’t seem realistic, decide which tasks can be postponed for a later date. It’s also helpful to prioritise the activities according to what is most important and urgent.
  3. Break tasks down into all the little steps involved in their completion to make large tasks seem less overwhelming and small tasks seem more straightforward. Having smaller tasks also means you can complete them much quicker so you won’t need to wait until you have large spaces of time to do them.
  4. Schedule tasks by keeping a detailed diary. Enter in existing commitments and usual routine. Fit “chunks” of tasks that need to be completed around these activities.
  5. Plan rewards and time for enjoying yourself. Often activities which we could use to reward ourselves (e.g. socialising) are the same things that distract us and cause us to procrastinate in the first place. The more you plan regular rewards for your achievements, the less you will feel like you are missing out in the meantime. Allowing these rewards to be guilt-free by having them planned and fitting them around work that needs doing is critical. Rewards, leisure and pleasure help to replenish energy.
  6. Consider different ways of ordering tasks. You could start with the worst first which is particularly good for small but dreaded tasks. The alternative is to use momentum and start by doing a task that you enjoy which energises you and then, without a break, quickly switch to a task that you have been putting off.
  7. Setting time limits for how long you will spend on a task can be really beneficial. A technique a lot of students find helpful is the “Just 5 minutes” principle where you initially commit to doing the task just for this length of time to get you started. Then once you are underway, you might feel like doing 5 minutes more and you can continue building up in this way. The other alternative is to set a specific time period to work on a task and then stop. Be realistic about how long this should be, bearing in my mind your concentration levels at the time.
  8. It can be helpful to start measuring time. People who procrastinate often underestimate how long a task will take and therefore do not allocate enough time for it, or overestimate which puts them off doing it. If you think either of these happens for you, then it’s worth practising estimating how long you think tasks will take. Next time and record how long they actually take for future reference.
  9. Follow the “remember then do” principle. For small irritating tasks that often get forgotten, do them as soon as you think of them.
  10. Visualise yourself doing the task. Bring a very vivid picture into your mind. Notice any obstacles arising which block you doing the task, and imagine successfully overcoming these to complete the task. Focus on the positive feelings of having achieved the task. Use the momentum from the visualisation to start the task in reality.
  11. If you feel unsettled when attempting to start a task, close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe from your belly rather than your chest. Try to lengthen each in and out breath, slowing down your breathing to steady it. Spend 5-10 minutes focusing on your breath then return to the task. Come back to focusing on the breath again if the unsettled feelings recur.

Written by: Sarah Lane

If you would like to learn more about how to tackle procrastination, then you can read our full booklet on the Wellbeing section of the website or book onto the one-off workshop “How to Just DO IT!” 

Abandoning the plan

Alex Smalley is a PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter. His research is exploring how immersive digital experiences of nature can impact wellbeing.

My PhD is centred around asking “Can technologies like virtual reality bring the natural world to people in ways which benefit their mental health?

I think that’s an important question to ask because whilst a decent body of evidence shows that spending time in nature can boost health and wellbeing, many people don’t have access to the natural world when they might need it the most.

For people in long term care, those recovering from major surgery, or workers in stressful jobs, contact with nature is often irregular, inadequate or impossible. And whilst immersive technologies give us a way to overcome these barriers, we understand very little about how to design and deliver truly restorative ‘virtual nature’ experiences.

When I wrote my PhD proposal, I had a pretty tight plan for how it would unfold. I knew where the gaps in the literature were; which questions I wanted to ask; and the kinds of experiments I was likely to run.

But 3 weeks before I was about to start, one meeting in Bristol changed everything.

I’ve been part of research at the University of Exeter for several years, and had been collaborating with the BBC Natural History Unit on another virtual reality project. In September 2018 they began work with BBC Radio 4 to produce an ambitious new drama, and wanted to weave science and research throughout the programme.

The new eco-thriller was going to explore our relationship with nature, and would focus on the sounds its protagonist encountered. It would also provide a unique ‘3 part offering’, with each episode of the drama accompanied by a science-based podcast and an immersive soundscape; Forest 404 was born.

The BBC wanted me to help with the science, but how could this fit with my research? Several creative discussions later, we decided to launch a national experiment alongside the drama, asking the British public to help us understand how people respond to the sounds of nature.

My PhD plan was out of the window!

Suddenly I was leading a research partnership between the BBC, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, as well as helping the Open University to develop their new citizen science tool (which would host the experiment).

Yet far from throwing my research off course, the Forest 404 Experiment has forced me to think differently about how people experience the natural world. It’s opened my ears to a rich seam of research possibilities, and highlighted nature-based sounds as a research avenue which has been largely overlooked.

Crucially, working with incredible teams at the BBC, Open University and the University of Bristol, has meant that I’ve been able to conduct an experiment which has been created by the very best in the business. It’s also operating on a scale which is unprecedented in soundscape research—we’ve already had over 7,000 people take part across the UK.

But it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve often been gripped by anxiety, imposter syndrome, and straight up panic—there was a week in April when just the Forest 404 theme tune would bring me to tears! But by talking about my research on the radio, in podcasts, and on the TV, I’ve had a chance to raise awareness of the study, and engage with a broad audience we never would have reached otherwise.

I’m also incredibly grateful to my supervisory team, without whom none of this would have been possible.

The take home message? Don’t be afraid to let your research take you in unexpected directions, and grab every opportunity that arises—even if they scare you!

Alex is funded by the Wellcome Trust and based at the University of Exeter’s campus in Truro. You can find out more about Virtual Nature at virtual-nature.com.

A Tale of Two (PhD) Sisters

Katie Newstead passed her PhD in Film Studies at the University of Exeter last November, and now teaches there in the English and Film departments. Her thesis was on contemporary Hollywood female stars, archetypes of ageing femininity, and the cinematic fairy tale reboot. Katie is a wheelchair user and keen disability and mental health activist; running @everydayableism on twitter under her own username of @whatktdoes_now. She is also a trustee for the charity Magic Carpet (@EX1MagicCarpet). 

Gemma Edney recently completed her PhD in Film Studies, researching the relationship between music and adolescent girlhood in contemporary French cinema. During her PhD she taught on Undergraduate modules in French and Film studies, and as a PhD tutor for The Brilliant Club Scholars’ Programme. She currently works as the Graduation lead for the University of Exeter. 

The relationships you make within the PGR community can be a vital lifeline: Dr Katie Newstead and Dr Gemma Edney reflect on the importance of peer support and friendship in their PhD experiences.

Doing a PhD can be a lonely and isolating experience: this is the warning issued to most new PGRs. There are pages and pages of articles, blog posts, and websites devoted to the problem of PhD student loneliness, and the issue is only made harder if, like Gemma, you work while studying, or, like Katie, you do most of your work at home rather than on campus.

The PGR community in Humanities at Exeter is a great antidote for this: the conferences, coffee mornings, lunches, and shared office spaces for students on campus, are great for making friends, and it’s possible to make amazing, life-long friendships this way. But this post is about one friendship in particular, in a tale of PhD sisterhood…

Annoyingly, neither of us remember exactly when we first met, but we were both always aware that the other existed. Being in the same department, with the same supervisor, we “knew of” each other from the beginning. We probably met in person at a conference buffet – because free food is a brilliant way of bringing people together – and the rest, as they say, is history.

We had the exact same supervisory team during our PhDs, which led Katie to dub us “PhD sisters,” and there was never a better way of describing our relationship (though how our supervisor feels about being the notional “mother” in this relationship is yet to be determined!). As we went through our PhD journeys, we often experienced the same highs, lows, frustrations, disappointments, and celebrations. Thankfully, we were usually on opposite trajectories with these experiences: when one of us was struggling, the other would be on an upwards curve. As one of us had usually already been through what the other was battling, we were able to lend sisterly support and advice. The only way out of the dark times is to get through them (this pearl of wisdom is stolen from our PhD supervisor), but sometimes you need someone to help light the way (this wisdom is all Katie’s). Who better than someone who knows exactly what you’re going through

No PhD experience is exactly the same: everyone goes through different personal and academic struggles, but knowing that we were at around the same stage in terms of submission was such a big help and provided a real boost, especially in the final few months. We were able to swap chapters and conclusions, share funny (or frustrating) supervision stories, vent about problems, and talk through worries and fears. Whenever one of us thought we couldn’t or wouldn’t, the other was there to say we could and would. Well, it turns out we both could and did: we passed our vivas within months of each other, and will be graduating together in July. We both agree that those last few months would have been hell without the other’s sisterly support: the checking-in, the reassurance, the humour, and the knowledge that someone had our back.

The PhD is an experience like no other, and can be a lonely process that makes you doubt yourself on a near-hourly basis. Then, you finish; and you feel like a superhero (according to Katie, anyway. All Gemma felt like was a nap). But, like all the best female superheroes – Buffy, Captain Marvel, Supergirl, etc – you need your girls by your side, and we had each other.

Written By: Katie Newstead and Gemma Edney. Find more about their research by following them on Twitter @whatktdoes_now and @GemmaEdney.

Ways to be kind to yourself

The way we think and feel about ourselves significantly affects our wellbeing. We can be harsh and critical or kind and compassionate towards ourselves. For a lot of people, self-criticism is the default setting. This makes life harder and less pleasurable. Research has shown that if we are kind and compassionate to ourselves, even when things are going wrong, we are more likely to cope with life’s difficulties and be happier. Below are some ideas which you can implement to start being kinder to yourself and developing your self-compassion:

  1. When something goes wrong, forgive yourself. Move away from self-blame. Everyone makes mistakes. Accept these as ways to make progress.
  2. Notice what you are feeling without judging yourself. Everyone has difficult times in their lives. Our emotions are the result of a complex mixture of factors which are not our fault and over which we may have little control.
  3. Gradually train yourself to become more aware of your thoughts, especially those that are negative and self-critical. Mindfulness meditation practices can really help with this such as those on the Headspace app which offers a 10 day free trial or the guided audios on mindfulnessforstudents.co.uk.
  4. When you notice negative and self-critical thoughts, pause for a moment and then imagine that it is a friend of yours in your situation as you speak to yourself in your mind. We are often much harsher in the way we speak to ourselves than we would ever be with other people!
  5. Try to refrain from saying “I should”, “I must” or “I ought to” statements to yourself.
  6. Try not to compare yourself with others. Comparing how you feel internally with how others seem externally is likely to make you feel worse about yourself. Often people will hide their struggles so we can’t really know what’s going on for them.
  7. Let go of the expectations of others and of excessively high expectations you have of yourself. It’s good to aim to do well but putting too much pressure on yourself will have the opposite effect, causing anxiety and often lowering performance.
  8. Spend 5 minutes in the evening remembering kindnesses which occurred in the day.
  9. Focus on the progress you have made each day and appreciate even small achievements, rather than fixating on the tasks that are still on your “to do” list.
  10. Spend time with people who are supportive of you and help you to feel good about yourself.
  11. Plan at least one enjoyable activity for each day, even if it’s just something small like phoning a good friend for a quick chat or having a relaxing bath. Taking regular breaks from work will help improve your wellbeing as well as making you more effective when you are studying – it’s a win-win!
  12. Each day aim to do one thing, however small, to help you reach a long term goal.

If you would like to learn more about how to be kinder and more compassionate towards yourself, then you can book onto the one-off workshop “Being kinder to yourself” offered at the Reed Mews Wellbeing Centre by visiting the Wellbeing workshop page on the website. The Wellbeing Centre also provides a six week Compassion Focused Course for those who feel they would benefit from exploring this area in more depth. This can be accessed by booking a Telephone Referral Appointment (TRA) with the Wellbeing Centre.

Written By: Sarah Lane, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner

How Can We Have Better Conversations About Mental Health?

Daisy Parker is a third year PhD student at the University of Exeter College of Medicine and Health. Her research focuses on developing training to support general practitioners when they’re talking to patients with emotional problems.

 

 

I have studied psychology in one way or another for over ten years, but that still didn’t prepare me for finding out that somebody I loved was suffering from depression. That gut wrenching feeling of knowing that a person you care about is in pain, but feeling powerless to do anything about it, is a feeling I’m sure I have shared with many other people. Having that conversation is not easy for any of us – including doctors. That is why for my PhD, I am investigating ways to help GPs have better conversations with patients with mental health concerns. But you don’t have to be a doctor to have a helpful conversation about mental health. Here are a few tips, based on my research:

  1. Listen attentively. Turn off any distractions, put down your phone, face the person with your whole body. Encouraging noises, such as ‘mhm’, lets them know that you are listening and encourages them to talk. Don’t be afraid of silence, try to avoid filling the gaps and allow the person to be able to gather their thoughts.
  2. Provide reassurance, and validate their feelings and decision to open up to you. It is often difficult for people to share their mental health problems. They may be ashamed or embarrassed, or feel that they are bothering you. Phrases such as “that sounds tough for you”, “I’m here for you”, and “I’m glad you reached out” are simple but effective ways of providing reassurance and validation.
  3. Remind them that there is help out there. Often, people do not feel that they deserve help, or that no-one can/will help them. Gently encouraging them to speak to their GP, or seek help from a charity such as Samaritans (call 116 123 in the UK) can be the endorsement they need. The university provides a number of sources of support which can be found at http://www.exeter.ac.uk/wellbeing/. You may also wish to offer to come with them to their doctor’s appointment for support.
  4. Don’t feel that you need to fix them. Simply being listened to, reassured, and supported is therapeutic on its own. Unless you are asked for advice, give it sparingly. A non-judgemental approach will help you to keep those channels of communication open.
  5. Finally, look after yourself. Listening to and supporting someone who has mental health concerns can be emotionally draining. You cannot pour from an empty cup, so make sure that you look after your own wellbeing as much as you can.

Find out more about Daisy and her research by checking out her University profile or following her Twitter @daisy_parker2

 

 

PGR Disability Network

Debbie Kinsey is a PhD researcher at Exeter Medical School examining museum programmes for people with dementia, with a particular focus on how including caregivers has an impact on the person with dementia, the carer, and the relationship between them. Her broader research interests include living well with chronic health conditions (particularly those acquired in adulthood), the arts and health, and accessibility in its many forms.

 

Dealing with a chronic illness or disability as a PGR involves many of the same issues as those without an illness/disability – finding balance between work and life, managing differing expectations, project managing (perhaps for the first time), etc. But those issues are often magnified for those of us who also have a health condition. For example, you may be more likely to need to take sick days or need to work less hours in a day. And there are also additional issues like navigating support services (or lack thereof depending on what you need), considering whether to disclose to supervisors or wider teams, and dealing with working in perhaps a very different way to your colleagues.

It can be quite isolating at times, particularly if you need to work from home or others around you don’t understand the difficulties of doing a research degree with a chronic illness or disability. But there are more of us out there than it can seem.

I’ve started a network for PGRs at Exeter with a chronic illness or disability, so we can find peer support, share experiences, and perhaps think about if there’s anything we would want to try to change or add to in the way the university (or funders) supports PGRs. It’s new, so we’ll work out what we want as we go. We might want to stick to just having an email list where people can post, or we could have a some coffee meet-ups, or we could invite university staff to talk to us about how they navigate academia with health conditions, or we could lobby the university to make changes in policy based on our experiences. It’s completely open and up to us.

Initially, the email list is set up on JiscMail. It’s set to private, which means that only those on the list can read the archive (past messages), and the list can’t be found in searches on the JiscMail site. The privacy settings are intentional, so that people feel able to talk openly. And though the doctoral college supports this network, it’s not run by them or any member of staff, which, again, hopefully helps people to feel they can be open without worrying that supervisors (or potential future employers) will read it. But we can decide as a group if we want to change that in the future.

If anyone wants to join, you can sign up via the JiscMail link below. Because the list is private, you have to be ‘approved’ by me to join, but I will do this automatically for Exeter University email addresses. You don’t need to provide ‘proof’ of your condition; you don’t need to be ‘bad enough’; you don’t need to have disclosed an illness or disability to the university or your supervisors. All that’s required is that you feel you would benefit from peer support and/or networking around coping with chronic illness or disability as a PGR at Exeter.

Click this link to sign up to the JiscMail.

Please feel free to email or tweet Debbie if you have any questions:
dk360@exeter.ac.uk
@debbie_kinsey

Wellbeing Discussion Forum

Daisy Curtis is an ESRC (1+3) funded Geography PhD student exploring the Digital Geographies of 5G technology. She undertook her BA Geography degree at Exeter, and during this time became involved in wellbeing and inclusivity work within the College of Life and Environmental Sciences (CLES), which she has continued during her Masters course and now as she starts her PhD. Daisy has helped to found and develop the Wellbeing Discussion Forum.

Around campus you may have noticed some of these flyers for the Wellbeing Discussion Forum. This is an initiative developed by the current, and previous VP Welfare and Diversities, the Head of Wellbeing (Mark Sawyer), and me. As the flyer explains the Wellbeing Discussion Forum is an opportunity to provide your perspective on the University’s Wellbeing Services, and also to engage with the development of future initiatives. Ultimately, this group acts as an opportunity for students and the Head of Wellbeing to meet and constructively discuss the Wellbeing Services so that it continues to support as many students as possible.First a bit of background – where did this initiative come from?

Back in 2017, just before the Easter holiday, the Guild was publicising an opportunity for students to participate in focus groups ‘Wellbeing on Campus: we want to know your thoughts’. This was part of a review being undertaken regarding the wellbeing support available to students. The publicity material for these focus groups signposted any interested students to contact the then VP Welfare and Diversity, Alec James. As someone engaged with wellbeing work within CLES, and having heard a lot about friends’ experiences of the Wellbeing Services, I was curious about the focus groups – why were they being held? Who could participate? And why were they organised to occur during the Easter holiday? So I contacted Alec, and he explained that the focus groups were acting as part of a broader review about wellbeing, and that questionnaires would also be used at a later date to gain further insights into student perspectives. What transpired was a discussion about whether there was anything that could be developed to gain feedback on the Wellbeing Services at the university in a more regular and structured format. Alec invited me to one of his meetings with the Head of Wellbeing, Mark Sawyer, to discuss this further, and this is when our ideas started to develop.

During our meeting, Mark expressed a keen interest in establishing a forum where students could voice their views, and the Wellbeing Services could ask for student perspectives about new projects they were developing. We realised that there was a need for a forum which would connect students to the Wellbeing Services, so that both groups could positively engage with one another. We concluded that this would develop over the long term, but that this was the moment to set our ideas in motion. We stayed in contact and met a few more times, and also discussed our ideas with staff within the University Inclusivity group. Fast forward to the next academic year (2017-18), and Kat Karamani had become the new VP Welfare and Diversity. Mark, Kat and I made a plan to make the first few meetings pilot meetings to identify whether this was a format that could work in practice. At the end of Term 1 we held our first meeting of our wellbeing group, provisionally called the Wellbeing Board, which brought together undergrads, PGTs, PGRs, the Guild, and the Wellbeing Services.

During Term 2 we continued to hold pilot meetings, testing different formats and expanding the membership of the group to also include people such as Residence Life Mentors. Now in the 2018-19 academic year we are working to further develop this initiative and have renamed the group the Wellbeing Discussion Forum to help make its purpose clearer and more accessible for students.

Who can be involved?

One of the key aims of the group is to gain an insight into the diversity of student experience. So, anyone who is interested in the wellbeing support provided at the university is welcome to join us. If you currently are, or have previously been, using the services provided by the University’s Wellbeing Services your perspective on this is vital. However, this forum is not only for those who have direct experience of the University’s Wellbeing Services. If you have never accessed wellbeing support, but are interested in attending a meeting, we highly encourage that you email expressing your interest. A number of the students who attended the pilot meetings last year, had not accessed the services themselves, but knew someone who had. The Wellbeing Discussion Forum, therefore, also provides a place for you to voice your thoughts as someone who may be supporting another person at university. There may be a number of you who are interested in attending who haven’t directly accessed support from Exeter’s Wellbeing Services, but may have accessed support from a different university, and your views are equally valued within the group. Also, as this blog is part of the Doctoral College, you may be interested in attending the group because it relates to your research area, if this is the case, please do contact us and we can discuss this further.

One meeting which we held last year was focused explicitly on postgraduate student experiences of wellbeing. This meeting proved to be incredibly productive, and the conclusion was that although there are certain systems in place for postgraduates, there is a lot which can be further developed and that having conversations with postgraduates via the Wellbeing Discussion Forum is vital.

So what is discussed?

The short answer to this question is student experiences of the Wellbeing Services, however, this is quite a vague answer. A better way to provide an indication of what topics are covered during the Wellbeing Discussion Forum meetings is to identify some of the themes we discussed during the pilot meetings last year, and the agenda items which were covered in the first Wellbeing Discussion Forum meeting of this academic year. A common topic that has been discussed is the process of communicating and accessing wellbeing support – are there any myths about access? Is the wellbeing website clear and understandable? Is wellbeing support provision communicated clearly at St Lukes? Was the signposting of wellbeing support during the recent industrial action sufficient? Although the forum is not a place to discuss details of specific experiences, there have been discussions where students have chosen to reflect upon their general experiences of the Wellbeing Services such as the process of booking wellbeing appointments, or their experiences of Telephone Referral Appointments (TRAs). There are a range of topics which have been raised within these meetings, and actions are identified during these discussions so that the wellbeing support is continually developing in-line with the requirements of students. The important point to convey is that the meetings are spaces where everyone’s views are respected and valued, and that any minutes which are taken during the meetings are done so so that the person is not identifiable.

The Forum is also a platform for the Wellbeing Services to ask questions about projects they are developing and gain student perspectives. An example of this is the Resilience Toolkit which the Wellbeing Services was developing last year to help (new) students develop resilience to help them manage their mental health. During the meetings last year the Wellbeing Services asked for feedback on the project and suggestions of similar projects which could be beneficial for students. Ultimately, within each meeting there is variation in the topics of discussion and actions identified, as these are determined by what students attending these meetings wish to raise and discuss.

If you wish to attend and talk about a topic during one of the Wellbeing Discussion Forum meetings, or if you have any questions, please contact

Written By: Daisy Curtis, PhD Researcher in Geography. You can find out more about Daisy and her Research by following her on twitter @derc201

Research in Focus: Mindful Colouring

Chloe Asker is a 1st year Human Geography PhD student, who has just started a thesis entitled ‘Mindful geographies? Towards the therapeutic geographies of mindfulness.’ Her previous Masters work studied adult colouring practises and their relationship to wellbeing.
Twitter: @chloeasker

In February the Doctoral College held a ‘Wellbeing Week’. It was a week full of enriching activities and workshops based around PGR wellbeing. Mindful colouring formed part of the activities taking place on campus. Colouring worksheets were circulated around departments and colleges, and many PGRs spent a blissful moment colouring in-between the lines.

https://twitter.com/nurfariha/status/832031716734795780

I am excited that the Doctoral College takes mindful colouring seriously, as often it is mocked as a ‘childish’ practice. As a geography student, this teasing is something that’s fairly common. The one joke or comment that stands the test of time is: ‘geography, isn’t that just colouring in?!’ This classic statement is often greeted with a fair amount of eye-rolling and exasperated sighing from the geographers questioned, and for many years during my Undergraduate degree, this had been my reaction as well.

However, during my third year of my degree, I became aware of, and experimented with, a trend in ‘therapeutic’ and ‘mindful’ adult colouring practices. From here, instead of seeing colouring-in as an infantile practice, or as something to be mocked, I wanted to seriously engage with and understand this trend and its implications for wellbeing.

How did I research this?

The main aim of the research was to understand whether colouring is a mindful1 and therapeutic2 practice. To do so, I drew on qualitative methodologies of auto-ethnography and participant ethnography.

My auto-ethnographic practice allowed personal insight into colouring and mindfulness. Since I am not a trained mindfulness practitioner I needed to develop my personal knowledge of the practice. So I spent a considerable amount of time practicing mindfulness and colouring, I then reflected my experiences in a research diary.

The participant ethnography stage took place in a local mental health and wellbeing charity3 where I organised drop-in colouring sessions for clients who accessed the facility. The colouring and meditation sessions were followed by discussion and questionnaires.

What did I find out?

Two main themes came out of this work.

The first was that colouring cultivated an immersive awareness that simultaneously stretched out the moment, by paying close attention to it, but also made it fly by as we entered ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). This ‘flow’ space acted like a mental retreat: we were still embedded in everyday life, but we had found a therapeutic and immersive part of the world.

To illustrate this, one participant fed back to the group: “I was so focused and thought of nothing but colouring.”

Here, her colouring practice completely filling her consciousness, taking her away from everyday anxieties and worries. Instead, she was cultivating her attention on the micro-spaces of the page and of her hand-on-the-pencil-on-the-paper in motion. The attention to our bodily rhythms is something that we so often neglect. Colouring allowed this participant to come back to the body, and cultivate a mindful sense of awareness.

Secondly, a couple of participants felt that the colouring was more frustrating than helpful. For example, the minuscule details on the page caused discomfort for people with eyesight difficulties.

“I’ve been sitting there with reading glasses on, and still can’t see, I have to stop when the eyes go, that’s the downside.”

These experiences often lead to the abandonment of the exercise, and were sometimes met with a reluctance to try again. Also, some were hesitant to begin the practice; one participant felt they could not complete the colouring sheet ‘well enough’. Some found a personal pressure to attain a high standard of colouring, as they were measuring themselves against others and critically evaluating their own work.

These brief snapshots have shown that the therapeutic nature of colouring is subjective and multifaceted. For some it is met with a sense of anxiety due to their perceived potential at ‘failing’, or issues of accessing the material. But, for others it really does work, providing them with a retreat and a mindful immersion that is attentive to their breath, body, colouring pencils and the page. Overall, taking these engagements seriously is important to open up discussions about, and share experiences of wellbeing and mental health.

Resources:

During the Doctoral College’s Wellbeing Week last year, colouring-in flyers and posters were posted around campus, find them here: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/doctoralcollege/pdfs/Colour_Me_In-1.pdf

Free mandala colouring pages can be found here: https://printmandala.com/

Some recommended colouring books:

Basford, J., 2013. Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book. Laurence King Publishing.

Marotta, M., 2014. Animal Kingdom: Colour Me, Draw Me. Lark Books.

Notes:

1I took a conceptualisation of mindfulness from John Kabat-Zinn’s widely used definition: ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2016, p. 4). There are many debates around this definition, and its possible simplification of Buddhist practice (for more detailed discussion see: Sun, 2014; Wilson, 2014)

Since becoming a PGR Chloe has set up a regular ‘wellbeing wednesday’ event in the Geography department with Emily Husband. The Doctoral College are supporting Chloe to run a Festive Craft event on Thursday 14th December from 3-4pm in Old Library Rooms 4&5. Come along to make your own research ‘bauble’, and enjoy some tea, coffee, mince pies and chat! You can sign up here.

Knitting and Wellbeing

As part of Wellbeing Week we thought it would be great to hear from PGRs and ECRs who are doing research in to wellbeing. This post is from Mirja Rutger – a PhD student in the Medical School doing research into the relationship between knitting and health and wellbeing.

Why knitting?

It all started with me noticing various claims particularly in online media about how knitting is good for your health and wellbeing. A realisation that I personally use yarn based crafts to improve my sense of wellbeing may of course to some extent have contributed to a cognitive bias in terms of the perceived frequency of those types of claims, but I couldn’t help wondering about the research behind them. It turned out that the so called evidence base was not very strong (this is an understatement). The idea for my PhD was born!

Through happy coincidences, the right contacts (read supervisor) and the open-mindedness of the Medical School PhD competition board the project was to my surprise funded. Now in the final year after extensive fieldwork including participant observation in a number of knitting groups and interviews with knitting group participants as well as group facilitators I think I am better positioned to answer the ‘why knitting?’ question I have so often been asked.

Think long-term conditions and mental health issues; think social prescribing, but foremost think people taking responsibility for their own wellbeing regardless of if they have a health condition or not. This is the context where I would put knitting/groups.

It seems that engaging in knitting/groups may be used in a very specific way beyond it being a relaxing and creative hobby. Knitting groups seems to have Social and Mental Wellbeing benefits that may be of value for people (read mostly women) with chronic or mental ill health. They offer an opportunity for social connection and in the case of knitting for loved ones or for charity being able to make a contribution even from your home or hospital bed.

In the spirit of the wellbeing week and referring to what may be the most obvious benefit of knitting in terms of relaxation and stress relief, I would like to end with an invitation to other PhD students interested in getting together for lunchtime crafts sessions at St Luke’s. What I have in mind is a bi-weekly gathering where you bring your own craft material and we instead of procrastinating in front of our computers, proCRAFTinate* together!

Please get in touch and men are welcome too!

*Definition of procraftinate: the act of putting off a task by crafting instead [Note: let’s keep it time limited shall we?!]

For further information about Mirja and her research project, please visit her Medical School profile.