Mindfulness is Top of Mind for Fisher Psychology Professor

January 21, 2019

In the fast-paced world of instant gratification and constant communication, Dr. Melissa Ghera is on a mission to slow down.

Melissa Ghera

An associate professor and chair of the Psychology Department, Ghera has studied mindfulness and meditation in her personal life for the last 20 years. And, in seeing a surge of psychology research looking at the effectiveness of these practices in altering behavior, she found that what she was doing in her personal life was showing up in her professional life, in a big way.

“I started looking into doing research on more contemplative practices a few years ago, and this year, decided to make a push to infuse it into my classes and research,” she said.

Experts in the field define mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment on purpose and doing so non-judgmentally, Ghera explained.

“We spend so much time not in the space that we are in. We’re in the grocery store planning how to get the kids to hockey or cooking dinner and planning meetings in our minds, but that means we are not experiencing the moment we’re in,” she added.

In thinking about her work and talking with other faculty across campus, Ghera learned about the synergies between her research interests and those of other professors. Among them are Dr. Susan Hildenbrand in the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education, Dr. Eileen Merges, also a member of the Psychology Department, and Rebecca Kieffer, director of the Health and Wellness Center, who are working on resiliency and trauma-informed approaches to education, health, and wellbeing.

Together, the group created the yearlong Resiliency Initiative, monthly events and “toolkit building” that promote resiliency, and in turn, help students, faculty, and staff manage stress. Topics that are being discussed include trauma sensitive responsiveness in the classroom, community, and with children; happiness and well-being; healthy relationships; and of course, mindfulness.

 “This not only helps our students deal with whatever is happening in their own lives, but helps them to go out and help those that they are going to be around,” Ghera explained. “It’s about building in that ability to take the pause, listen, and then be in the community you are in- deepening this ability within yourself and translating it out into the world.”

At the same time, Ghera joined the team working on Fisher’s S-STEM grant proposal, an effort to secure funding from the National Science Foundation to host a Scholars Program that supports high-achieving students from low income backgrounds as they pursue STEM fields. At Fisher, the S-STEM Scholarship program will foster student success by integrating mindfulness and mindset training, community engagement, research and academic support, mentorship, and career exploration through both cohort-based and individual activities.

Ghera has also taught courses and offered training on mindfulness practices. Shannon Hackel ’19 was enrolled in PSYC 390: What’s Up with the Kids?, where Ghera led class discussions on interventions that can help reduce developmental struggles in children.

“As a class, we were always returning to the idea of helping build children’s resilience and self-autonomy,” Hackel said. “We learned multiple mindfulness techniques that children can follow and enjoy and these interventions can be done directly in the classroom.”

Hackel said she found the “hot chocolate breath” to be one of her favorite techniques.

“You and the child imagine holding a warm cup of hot chocolate, you tell them it is much too hot to take a sip right now, so they have to take a big breath in and gently blow on the drink to cool it down,” she explained. “This technique gets children to breathe and focus on the hot chocolate rather than other distracting thoughts.”

Hackel also noticed a change in her own mindset as a result of the exercises.

“I am so much more mindful and calm when a stressful situation occurs,” she said. “I focus on what I can be doing in the present moment, rather than what I have to be doing in the future.”

A certified instructor in Koru Mindfulness, a program developed at Duke University, Ghera piloted a four-week mindfulness course using this method with faculty and staff. Each week, she introduced different ways to establish and maintain meditation practice. Participants were asked to meditate for a minimum of 10 minutes each day and reflect on what they were learning in a journal.

Dr. Eileen Lynd-Balta, associate provost at Fisher, took Ghera’s course. At the start, she found the meditation experience unsettling. But now months later, she’s embarked on a 25-day challenge that involves doing yoga or meditation every day. And, she believes Fisher students could benefit greatly from the training.

“The Duke professors have documented significant benefits to students who participate in Koru Mindfulness training, including less stress, being more mindful, getting better sleep, and having less self-judgement,” she said. “Introducing students to these techniques will help them stay calm when facing novel and/or adverse situations, manage their time better, develop a growth mindset, and be more resilient.”

And, Lynd Balta is excited to see faculty and staff looking at student success from a holistic approach.

“The more that faculty and staff across all areas of the College can collaborate, the more likely we will be creating opportunities that meet our students’ needs,” she said. “We want our students to thrive, and mindfulness is an important means for students to optimize their experiences in and out of the classroom.”

This spring, Ghera is running more Koru classes, and hopes to eventually offer them for-credit to students.

“I would love to bring this to scale at Fisher,” she said. “It’s a growing movement on college campuses, and the opportunity to do it here is exciting.”