Online Mindfulness Classes Help Dental Students Cope With the Crisis

Dentistry Today
Photo: Jessica Scranton

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Photo: Jessica Scranton

After the campuses of Tufts University emptied out due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its dental students began to gather online for quiet, virtual mediation with Christina Pastan, director of mind-body wellness at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine.

Pastan usually leads weekly meditation and yoga sessions for students, faculty, and staff at the school. But once the pandemic began to unfold, she realized she “could not skip a beat.” So, she created meeting times through the Zoom remote conferencing app, emailed a link, and led two groups through 30-minute mindfulness meditation and yoga sessions from her home.

“These practices are so grounding for me,” she said, noting that while she’s never led sessions quite like these before, she hopes they can be calming for others as well.

Pastan now is opening up her mind-body sessions to the entire Tufts community. The university’s Department of Health Promotion and Prevention (HPP) also will be hosting online drop-in meditation sessions for the university community, including targeted sessions for student-athletes

For students, the abrupt lifestyle changes brought on by the pandemic are stressful and disorienting, with a tremendous sense of loss and uncertainty for those approaching graduation, said Ian Wong, director of HPP. 

Even if being back home is familiar, the landscape is radically changed with “their whole social life is now within their house,” said Wong. “Mindfulness meditation can help bring that stress level down a little bit so they can focus again.

It also can help keep students from using alcohol or other substances to deal with the stress, Wong said.

Research over almost four decades has shown that mindfulness meditation—a mental training practice that involves breathing, mental imagery, and mind-body awareness—provides psychological, cognitive, and physiological benefits, including lowering blood pressure and alleviating chronic pain, the school said. 

Also, Tufts said, some studies indicate that online interventions can be beneficial for mental health, although more long-term research is needed, according to the American Psychological Association. The world’s new experience in social distancing will offer a large-scale chance to explore the effects of cyber-meditation, Tufts added.

“We are trying to take what we do in person and translate it directly to the virtual, but we’re also trying to find out how to keep that sense of community and connection,” Wong said.

To create its online program, HPP will partner with mindfulness app Headspace, the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance, psychologist Christopher Willard, and consultants Jennifer Earls, A08, and Ashley Norwood.

Pastan said that after guiding a meditation session at the dental school, “there is a complete shift of energy in the space. There is such calmness to the room and a sense of connection.” 

Wondering what the experience will be like for those who are meditating for the first time online, especially novices who are hesitant, “there is no right or wrong way to come to this practice,” Pastan said.

“Some people do meditation on a day that they are struggling, and the meditation mirrors that,” Pastan said. “The practice is to come back tomorrow with a fresh mind and do it again,” which isn’t always easy.

Even in the best of times, “Tufts students can often think, ‘Everyone has it together but me,’” said Wong, noting that finding help is even more important in a time of crisis. “This is new for everybody—faculty, staff, administration, and students. We all need to lean on each other and find support to get through this. We need to bring down the anxiety of the unknown. 

Pastan will lead virtual drop-in meditation on Thursdays at 12:30 pm through May 28 and virtual yoga on Tuesdays at 4:30 pm through April 28. To be added to the e-list, email christina.pastan@tufts.edu.

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