Nov. 29, 2021

Pair demystifies mindfulness — one podcast at a time

UCalgary nursing instructor and doctoral scholar launch meditation series to reach people experiencing stress
mindfulness facilitators julia imanoff and justin burkett

When one door opens, another … opens? That was the case for University of Calgary alumni and current graduate students Justin Burkett and Julia Imanoff, who found space and inspiration to support their community of nurses during the pandemic through group mindfulness sessions.  

The two credit Faculty of Nursing Dean Dr. Sandra Davidson, PhD, for leading the charge on a faculty-level mental health strategy, allowing for new initiatives to flourish. This, coupled with the support of UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy, inspired the nursing practitioners to create an eight-episode podcast on mindfulness and mindful meditations.

Titled Stepping Out of Reactivity, the series is informed by Burkett and Imanoff’s experiences as registered nurses. “Stress and burnout are really high in our profession, even before COVID,” says Imanoff, MN’16. Those working in helping professions, teaching and learning environments, or really anyone with high stress or high reactivity, she says, may find the meditations featured in the podcast supportive.

Working with Burkett, BN’14, GCert’20, GCert’21, the two hope to build resiliency in their communities and beyond.  

Addressing benefits and misconceptions of mindfulness with science

Research continues to mount about the benefits of mindfulness, from happier moods, better sleep and lower stress levels, to weight-loss and cancer recovery.

However, Burkett recognizes “mindfulness” has possibly become an overused word, and one that can be misunderstood. “Some people have visceral reactions and can be completely turned off by it,” he says. But Burkett wants to dispel these judgments so more people can have the opportunity to experience its benefits.

This is not a religion; this is not even ‘to do nothing.’ This is an active process in training the mind with a technique.

That training of the mind can be understood literally, with studies confirming physical changes happening to certain structures in the brain.

Imanoff finds evidence of this in her own life. "People notice different things about you,” she says. “People will comment, ‘What are you doing in your life? You sound different, you feel different.’”

In his final year of his Master of Nursing, Burkett, an instructor in UCalgary’s Faculty of Nursing, has seen that students who practise mindfulness have better interactions with patients. “I notice the therapeutic relationship completely changes,” he says.  

Stressful environments, helping professions lend themselves to mindful meditation

Meditations featured in the podcast were identified by Burkett and Imanoff as ones that fit well for not only helping professions, but also for anyone dealing with stress.   

“You’re always learning new skills,” says Imanoff of the feeling of constant giving experienced by helping professions. “Even the first time a student is giving out a medication, it’s so stressful for them; they don’t want to do any harm. The constant state of stress can really do a lot to our nervous systems, and you can see these people with high states of reactivity.

“To build resilience; to work with a team; to work in a high-acuity situation, constantly learning new skills; a profession where you’re constantly in a state of stress … This idea of stepping out of reactive space and being more present for teammates and patients — that’s to everyone’s benefit.”

Concentration, clarity and a sense of feeling grounded, Burkett explains, are central tenets of mindful meditation.

"For anyone to be able to concentrate more, see more clearly and be OK with what's arising, are skills that are extremely beneficial in our settings,” he says. “It also goes with increasing compassion. You have more patience to listen and absorb what’s around you … it’s rejuvenating. And you can, in turn, make better choices.”

Deciding if mindfulness is right for you

Imanoff and Burkett took care when creating their podcast to recognize everyone comes from different backgrounds and understanding.

“We have to be cautious, because not all meditations should be practised without a teacher or guidance,” says Burkett. “Certain meditations can trigger a reactive state, but the ones we have for this podcast are intentionally made for those who might be new to the practice and want some gentle guidance to progress at their own pace.”  

They see their podcast as just one tool in a tool box. “Mindfulness is an opportunity to reflect. It’s an audio podcast, not a therapy session,” says Imanoff. “Depending on where folks are at in their meditation journey, mindfulness comes up in different ways for different people.”

Burkett found practising mindfulness supported his own periods of anxiety and depression. “It’s made an enormous impact on my life, how I feel about myself, how I interact with people,” he says. But: “You can use mindfulness as a therapeutic intervention, but this is not exactly what we’re doing. If you continue on the journey, you may want a teacher or a sitting group.”

Imanoff and Burkett don’t want others to feel guilty for not taking up the practice right away.

Sometimes it's about timing

Introduced to mindful meditation during a high-stress period in her life, even Imanoff was skeptical at first. “I had two kids under two (and was a) grad student, teaching full-time; what five minutes did I even have? But I did it,” she says. “And now I sit for 10 minutes, minimum, because the benefits make me more productive, less reactive to my kids. It bleeds into every aspect of my life.

“You might not be ready for meditation yet. If you are open to try, it feels different than when you force it. I know, during a period of high stress, my initial response to meditation was very different to when I was ready and willing to really give it a try. But it isn’t for everyone.”

Burkett says practising mindfulness can be done anywhere, for any amount of time. "It doesn’t even have to be five minutes,” he says. “In the (final) episode, we’ll talk about integration into daily living. While you’re in the elevator, brushing your teeth, finding 10 seconds every so often throughout the day.”

The eight-part podcast, Stepping Out of Reactivity, releases episodes weekly, and is available on most major podcast players.  

Justin Burkett is a registered nurse and instructor in the Faculty of Nursing. He is in his final year of the laddered MN program concentrating in leadership, health-care design and innovation.

Julia Imanoff is a registered nurse and an Eyes High Doctoral Scholar in the Faculty of Nursing. She is a certified perinatal nurse and co-founder and CEO of COLO Families, a nurse-led social enterprise that offers parenting programs and services to create healthier, more connected families from the start. She also holds undergraduate degrees in physical sciences from the University of Waterloo and nursing from Ryerson.

To find a meditation teacher or group, Burkett suggests Calgary Insight Meditation Society or Modern and Mindful. He also recommends True North Insight or BC Insight Meditation Society for online sessions. The Calgary Public Library also offers occasional free sessions.

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. If you think you or someone you know needs help, please visit resources here.

UCalgary Nursing leads the generation of research and scholarship to improve and innovate nursing education, health outcomes and systems transformation. It delivers resiliency-informed experiential programs that develop the future leaders and innovators of the discipline and nursing practice and engages with local and global communities to develop sustainable relationships for mutual benefit.