Student Stress Solutions through Mindfulness and Meditation
by April Newman and Carrie Schlicht
It’s that time of year again – the end of a season and school year. Despite the dazzling lure of summer possibility, hot beach days, sleeping late, and time to reconnect, sometimes we find ourselves feeling something entirely different on the inside. We experience the stifling grip of pressure, anxiety, and stress in general. Are my test scores enough to get me into the right school? Will my GPA measure up? Then, add in all the other life stuff: Is my boyfriend/girlfriend still into it? What is going on with my family – why is everyone crazy? We feel the insecurities of coming of age, and, coupled with life traumas (everything from death to sickness to exhaustion or even abuse), it can be too much. Meanwhile, cue a tightness in the chest, or grinding teeth at night, or headaches, and suddenly we have allowed these external worries to invade the body, making it difficult to sleep or relax, or let’s face it – be ourselves. No wonder young people are some of the most stressed out! According to one mental health study, as many as 85% of students report they experience stress on a daily basis (AP & MtvU, 2009). Sound familiar?
Luckily, there is a means to manage this stress, and you can do it. Anyone can. And we can do it for free. We have the tools built within ourselves to control or reframe our thoughts, and by doing so, relieve both the mind and the body of stress’ incessant grip, leaving ourselves open to the sweetness of the present moment – feeling connection with others, able to be productive and focused, or just to feel a minute’s peace from the constant yammering of texts, Facebook, or Instagram. We do it through mindfulness and meditation.
Simply put, mindfulness involves being in an active state of awareness in the present moment. It is the centering of our thoughts, awareness, and reflection on what is happening now – not what happened earlier in the day or what will happen later; it’s also not about judging the moment, but simply experiencing it. It allows us to more carefully formulate responses to situations (vs. reacting to them carelessly). It also allows us to focus on a single thing. This is counter to our 21st century mentality of multitasking which tends to make us less focused, less self-aware, and less productive, despite our assumptions about our abilities to do more than one thing at one time.
Meditation is a means to practice mindfulness and is equally simple. It is just paying attention to our thoughts and breathing for a given duration. We listen to our breath, feel the weight of our bodies, and notice when our minds get derailed by anxious – or even mundane – thoughts. When we suddenly notice that we have gotten lost in thought, we patiently bring our attention back to breathing, back to our body. The trick is doing so without judging or getting mad that we have to refocus. Actually, the point is to fail – to acknowledge our wandering mind – to face it – and then calmly reset ourselves. The more we complete this cycle of focusing, wandering, and resetting, the easier it will be for our brains to remain in a focused state. Additionally, as we build this practice over time (say 10 minutes a day to start), it makes it easier to deal when outside stresses from school, family, work, or life interfere with our goals or productivity.
Check out this link to a short animation by Happify (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqoxYKtEWEc), which is narrated by ABC news anchor Dan Harris. Here Harris explains the basic practice of meditation for newcomers. Rooted in neuroscience research, meditation is actually a way to not just refocus your brain, but to restructure it. When we meditate, we change the relationships between the various cortex sections of the brain. Without meditation – or other mindfulness practices – our medial prefrontal cortex does most of our information processing. Dr. Rebecca Glassing (2013) calls this cortex area the “Me Center” of the brain – it is where we process information about ourselves….what we think other people think about us, how we respond to others (especially if we view them as different from us), what we daydream about, and how we anticipate our futures will unfold. This is also where we process our “gut” responses to things and, often, irrationally link a sensation we feel or perceive to something negative (“I have had a pain in my side for three days now. My grandpa had liver cancer and his side hurt. I bet this is cancer.”). This is also where we perceive and process danger and fear; though, here too, we often do so irrationally. If left unchecked, the Me Center can essentially rule our thought processes in such a way that we routinely perceive our surroundings or interactions with others in an overtly personal or negative way. We lack the ability to view our situations through an objective lens.
Through meditation, however, Glassing asserts we can begin to change how our brain processes information. Meditation will reduce the amount of information processing we allow our Me Centers to do. Though meditation, we begin to shift that processing over to the more rational lateral prefrontal cortex – what Glassing calls the “Assessment Center.” This area of our brains looks at things more logically and objectively than the Me Center. When we meditate, we allow the Assessment Center to take over our perceptions, thoughts, and reactions, meaning we make things less about “us” and more about how they truly are. (“I have had a pain in my side for three days now. Perhaps I pulled a muscle when I was helping my friend move into his new apartment.”)
The ability to focus more and worry less is not given to a choice few. You can choose this for yourself. Meditation is not easy or necessarily natural, though, which is why you will need to start small and commit to a practice. You may also find a guided meditation is what you need to help get you started. There is a plethora of free guided meditations to begin your journey into mindfulness. UCLA, for example, presents some fantastic meditation resources in both English and Spanish. Why not give it a try? Pick a resource and sit down in a comfortable seat (you can even lie down on the floor). Click on a guided meditation which will coach you to listen to your breath, empty your mind of all those burdensome worries, and experience being present in your body for just this moment, which is, when you think about it, the only one that really matters.
April Newman and Carrie Schlicht are both faculty members at the University of Phoenix, and collaborate on mindfulness-based education research. Carrie has written about online curriculum design for the journal Quarterly Review of Distance Education, and April’s work has appeared at the University of Iowa and University of Wisconsin Presses, as well as Mindful Metropolis and Hair Trigger magazines.
References & Resources
Associated Press. Musical Television University – MtvU (2009). MtvU AP 2009 economy, college stress and mental health poll [Data set]. Edison Media Research of Somerville, NJ [Distributer]. Retrieved from http://cdn.halfofus.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mtvU-AP-2009-Economy-College-Stress-and-Mental-Health-Poll-Executive-Summary-May-2009.pdf
Glassing, R. (2013, May 22). This is your brain on meditation. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation
Harris, D. [narration] & K. Davis [animation]. (2015). Meditation 101: A beginner’s guide [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqoxYKtEWEc
UCLA Health. (2016). Free guided meditations. UCLA Mindful Awareness Center. Retrieved from http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22