Mindfulness Program Offers Coping Skills during Stressful Time

By Ben Boulden

Many UAMS students, residents and faculty for the last two years have nevertheless found that search to be a fruitful one with the help of the UAMS Mindfulness Program.

Mindfulness Meditation is a secular approach to meditation that helps strengthen an individual’s ability to pay attention and increase awareness of what happens with them automatically mentally, emotionally and physically. This increased self-awareness can lead to an increased ability to make thoughtful, mindful choices in daily life, be calmer and improve decision-making.

Puru Thapa, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the Student, Resident and Faculty Wellness Programs, is the founding director of the UAMS Mindfulness Program.

Puru Thapa, M.D.

Puru Thapa, M.D.

When he came to UAMS in 2016 as director of the wellness programs, Thapa saw the need for such a program and began working toward establishing one. In October 2018, he received a $25,000 grant from the Chancellor’s Circle of Excellence Fund to establish the UAMS Mindfulness Program. With this money, he supported several faculty and staff with interest in Mindfulness to be trained as certified teachers in Koru Mindfulness through an intensive course.

“We now have 11 trained Mindfulness teachers whose dedicated, selfless devotion is what I am most proud of,” Thapa said.

Since the program’s start, he and the trained faculty have taught 38 Koru Mindfulness courses with 458 participants, including students, residents, and faculty.  Koru Mindfulness is a four-week course that meets for 75 minutes each week. It’s designed to be a short enough course for a student or resident to fit it into their schedule. It is free.

The feedback was and continues to be positive.

Anonymous course evaluations from people taking the classes often come back with comments such as: “I like that I was taught several tools that can help me to incorporate mindfulness into my life,” and “I am trying to be more mindful and this is helping me to cope better and reduce stress.”

Since March, the Mindfulness Program has offered guided mindfulness sessions online at noon five days a week.

“We were rising to the occasion to support the community,” Thapa said of moving the sessions online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The online classes give people interested in mindfulness greater flexibility in attending, allowing them to log on wherever they can make an internet connection.

“I am old-fashioned,” Thapa said. “Nothing beats in-person. Having said that, the fact we can do it online has been amazing. If we didn’t do online, there would be nothing. Almost all of our other teaching at UAMS has moved online, too.”

Thapa has been able to offer some nursing staff in-person instruction in mindfulness, with everyone remaining socially distanced and wearing masks.

Pele Yu, M.D., UAMS Clinical Informatics Fellowship Program director and Professor of Pediatrics, is the Associate Director of the Mindfulness Program. He is on the pathway to teacher certification in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and has started teaching this eight-week course that is open to the public. The class meets for 2 ½ hours weekly and a day long retreat in the middle of the course. There is a registration fee.

Thapa had offered a Koru Mindfulness course to faculty in the fall with spots available for up to 15 enrollees. Thapa said within two hours enough signed up that a second concurrent class was added.

“What this told me is that there is pent-up demand,” Thapa said. “Our faculty are stressed because they worry about the students. Many are working in a clinical setting. They have to deal with their own personal lives. There’s a lot of stress.”

Thapa said he would like to offer Koru Mindfulness classes to UAMS nurses and university staff, as resources become available. All the teachers are volunteers and teach mindfulness because they believe in it.

There is extensive scientific evidence that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce anxiety, depression and stress. The practice and methods are evidence-based, Thapa said.

“We are trying to slowly expand and sustain this program,” he said. “When the pandemic started, we were already here. We were able to offer the guided mindfulness for the whole institution. Mindfulness helps us to be in the present and accept what is happening and not ignore reality. The practice of mindfulness helps us learn to do that.”