Life

Mindfulness programs at the University of Iowa help participants manage stress

(File photo) The Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa Campus in Iowa City.
(File photo) The Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa Campus in Iowa City.

 A University of Iowa graduate student filters into River Room One at the Iowa Memorial Union on a mid-July Monday evening.

He’s greeted by Kenny Heitritter and Eric Tvedte, two UI graduate students already sitting in blue plastic chairs near the windows at the far end of the room.

Lydia Baker, a recent UI grad, follows suit. The four — a number higher than originally anticipated for the summer — say their hellos and settle into their seats. Heitritter, with a slight pause, introduces the agenda for the weekly meeting of Mindful@Iowa — a UI organization for students, faculty and staff to practice mindfulness in a controlled setting.

Mindfulness, as defined by Kerri Eness-Potter, the organization’s adviser, is paying attention on purpose — through a non-judgmental lens — in the present.

Eness-Potter also serves as the program coordinator of Mindful Programs at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and as an adjunct professor in the College of Education, where she teaches a course on mindfulness.

Through this course, targeted at undergraduates, Mindful@Iowa was formed.

The University of Iowa houses one of the only Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs in the state. Started in 1996, the program “cultivates health, happiness and well-being” among its participants.

“Our bodies are constantly telling us things, but most people are just pushing through the day, and unless something is throbbing or screaming at them — they ignore it,” Eness-Potter said. “Mindfulness is about being in the present.”

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To practice mindfulness, one must be grounded in their body and their breath, something which Eness-Potter said is “always with you” and portable.

Through this technique, which is usually practiced in silent meditation, but could also take the form of meditation through yoga, walking or a more verbal form, participants are able to raise awareness and recognize a better sense of self.

The common perception that meditation is emptying one’s mind is false, Eness-Potter said. And it’s definitely not about always feeling peacefulness nor should it be used as an attempt to “fix yourself.”

“We want people to have more space between themselves and their thoughts and emotions — not to push them away or to judge them or deny them, but to see them and realize ‘this is not the whole story of me, it’s what is here right now,’ ” Eness-Potter said.

Through the program at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, two courses are offered: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. The courses are designed to help address stress, chronic pain, anxiety and quality of life along with preventing relapses into depression.

“You learn acceptance of your thoughts,” Eness-Potter said. “When people first watch their thoughts, [they often think] ‘I don’t want these thoughts’ as they can be very judgmental — but we don’t need to judge that.

“Just because you think something doesn’t make it a fact.”

While it does have roots in the teachings of Buddha, mindfulness is a secular pursuit. It started to become a more mainstream concept in the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts began to use mindfulness to threat the chronically ill.

Chris Klug, a mindfulness instructor formerly with the UIHC program and currently with Prairiewoods in Hiawatha, has been practicing meditation since the early 1980s. He became an instructor in 2001.

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“Mindfulness isn’t about getting rid of anything. It’s about experiencing things differently because we choose to be in relationship with it differently,” Klug said. “If you’re treating your stress as a problem to be solved, that is going to affect the way you experience your stress.”

Klug offered a comparison: “If you’re experiencing your stress as a friend that comes to visit you and sometimes causes you a lot of suffering but sometimes brings you some good information, you’re going to experience your stress differently.”

For Klug, mindfulness is about bringing power back to one’s own experience.

“It helps people to see the habits they have — mental, emotional, physical — and how most of our lives are controlled by those habits,” Klug said.

“Many people come to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course because they realize their lives are moving very quickly and moving past them, and they’re constantly focused on what’s in the past and what is coming next. They have a desire to be more aware of what is going on right now.”

For those wanting to get involved with mindfulness training, Eness-Potter recommended it’s best to join a class or group structure.

“[It’s important] having some sort of structure as you’re getting introduced to it,” UI graduate student Ryan Smith said. “You have to do it a lot before it sinks in.”

*This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of The Gazette’s HER: Women in Business magazine.*

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