As a mindfulness trainer, around this time of year, I am often asked whether mindfulness is good for students. My response is: mindfulness can bring benefits to almost everyone, unless they have recently been through a difficult time (like bereavement, relationship breakup or physical trauma) or have a severe mental illness.
This post has been written with students in mind. Feel free to share it.
What kind of benefits might be seen? Our lives consist of moments or experiences strung together. Some of those experiences can cause worry and stress. At university such times might be understanding new concepts, assignments, exams, social interactions, looking for accommodation, money concerns, missing home or friends and family.
"It has also been demonstrated that high levels of stress in the academic environment cause attention and concentration deficits, difficulties in memorizing and problem solving, deficits in study skills, low productivity and academic performance."
Franco et al, 2010
We know that when we are not feeling our best our ability to concentrate and pay attention diminishes. This means that we also have difficulty taking in information, making decisions and managing distractions. At such times we might also get cross with ourselves which can result in us feeling worse.
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help students experience less distress and therefore cope better during stressful moments or conditions such as exams (Galante et al, 2017).
What is mindfulness? Mindfulness simply means present moment awareness. An easy way to perhaps understand that is to think about mindlessness; mindlessness means not paying attention to what we are doing, what someone is saying or where our mind is at.
Think back to when you first learned to do something abit tricky – maybe learning to ride a bike or drive a car. When you were learning, you would have focused on every aspect of that task but now you can probably do it without thinking and that means you can hold a conversation or think about something else. You might even say it’s second nature or is done on autopilot.
Brainpower requires energy so when we can do things on autopilot, it saves us energy.
However being released from needing to pay attention to things we are doing because we can do them on autopilot means we can easily get lost daydreaming whose siblings are worry and negative thinking which usually take us back to the past or into the future.
By consciously choosing to pay attention to the present moment, we can disengage from troubling thoughts that lower our ability to concentrate, our capability and our mood.
How do you do it?
Just like getting physically fit to be mentally fit, we need to work at it.
Although we may choose to focus our attention on something - the warmth of sun on our back or the wind in our face - like any skill you need to train yourself to do it so you are not distracted by thought, other sensations or feelings.
Mindfulness trainers say it is like going to the gym; each time you practice you are developing your attention muscle and creating new pathways in your brain.
Those who are mindful often use attention training meditation exercises - like the one described below - to practice so that when they notice they are beginning to feel anxious or worries are on their mind they can step into the present and put some distance between themselves and negative thinking.
Just 10 minutes practice a day for 6-8 weeks is thought to be enough to see changes in the brain itself but even after just a week of practice you are likely to notice benefits.
Mindfulness of Breath: a meditation
A simple meditation is mindfulness of breath where we become aware of the sensations of breathing in the body. Not thinking about the breath or taking control of it in any way. Just noticing the body breathing.
You might become aware of your abdomen expanding on the in-breath and relaxing on the out-breath. You might focus on your chest and shoulders expanding and contracting or you might become aware of the coolness of your inhale in and around the nostrils or at the back of the throat and a warmer sensation as you exhale. Once you have found where you feel or sense the breath then rest your attention there.
Sooner or later your mind will naturally wander away to a thought, a sensation or an emotion, this happens to all of us. The moment you notice is a moment of present awareness. Simply silently name where your mind went – thinking, feeling, sensation – and then turn your attention back to sensing the breath in the body. Each time you turn your attention from the distraction to the breath is one rep for the attention training muscle.
This link will take you to recorded practices on a mindfulness for students website.
Where and when should I practice? You can choose to pay attention to the present moment anywhere, anytime you remember or you can use trigger moments - when you wash your hands, when you put a key in a lock, when you open a door.
However, your attention training (meditation) is best done in a place where you won’t be disturbed and at a time when you are alert enough to notice your attention is – i.e. probably not lying down in bed or when you are feeling tired.
It can be helpful to establish a regular time to practice; there is no right or wrong time. Some find first thing in the morning is good when the mind is not yet full of the things to do that day but this might not be possible for you. Others practice when they get home, some do it before they go to bed.
Some practice is better than none so whatever works best for you is when is best.
Bringing mindfulness to student life
Practicing in a quiet room is great but that is not necessarily where or when we could do with being present. Here are some times when you could take a mindful moment or minute to pause, breathe and connect with the present.
>Having arrived at class or exam, get your things ready and get yourself ready. Close your eyes, find your breath and focus on your inhale and exhale 7 times.
>When you sit down to read or write. Take a few mindful breaths.
>If you feel anxious, worried or have racing thoughts. Whilst sitting or standing drop your attention down to the feet, feel into your toes, your soles and the top of the foot.
Where can I learn more? There are many ways to learn mindfulness and how to meditate. You could use a book like Finding Peace in a Frantic World which also has an app and CD or attend a 6 or 8 week class.
Classes help you establish a routine and teach you about mind management.
There may be mindfulness courses already taking place at your college or university. Try contacting student welfare to find out.
This link goes to a short and practical slideshow on mindfulness for students
Franco C., Mañas I., Cangas A.J., Gallego J. (2010) The Applications of Mindfulness with Students of Secondary School: Results on the Academic Performance, Self-concept and Anxiety. In: Lytras M.D., Ordonez De Pablos P., Ziderman A., Roulstone A., Maurer H., Imber J.B. (eds) Knowledge Management, Information Systems, E-Learning, and Sustainability Research. WSKS 2010. Communications in Computer and Information Science, vol 111. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
Galante, Julieta et al. (2017) A mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress in university students (the Mindful Student Study): a pragmatic randomised controlled trial The Lancet Public Health, Volume 3 , Issue 2 , e72 - e81