Do you ever find yourself feeling apprehensive about an upcoming exam or term paper and overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed? If so, you are not in the minority. Many students experience a similar state of uneasiness and anxiousness around this time – understandably so. In this increasingly competitive society, there are a myriad of accomplishments expected of everyone; this ranges from excelling in academia, being involved in meaningful extracurricular activities, engaging in community service, performing well on standardized tests – all while balancing one’s social and family life. These burdens that students shoulder, if left unchecked, can prove to be harmful to both physical and mental health.
It is for this reason that students should adopt a coping mechanism so that rather than being consumed by their worries, they can learn to better manage their stress and prevent future illnesses. The key? Training oneself to achieve a state of mindfulness. That is, attaining a sense of pure awareness within one’s life, conducting daily actions with conscious intention, being present, and treating oneself with kindness.
Perhaps the most integral aspect of being mindful is practicing meditation regularly. You have likely heard of several different forms of meditation. Be it Guided Meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Kundalini Meditation, Yoga-based Meditation, among others. While these are each great methods of meditation to learn and practice, it is best to start simple. Set a daily goal to meditate for at least eight uninterrupted minutes. You can try to squeeze in a session in the morning before your first zoom class or maybe during a mid-day break. Whenever you decide to meditate, be sure to isolate yourself from others if possible, dim the lights if you are inside, and sit upright in a chair or on your bed. As you meditate, inhale deep breaths from your nose and exhale from your mouth, while keeping your eyes closed. Each breath should last at least three seconds. Remember that the technique of breathing is the most fundamental component of meditation itself. Accordingly, be sure that your diaphragm inflates with each breath (as does a balloon when inflated with air). A tip: keep one hand on your upper stomach area and consciously ensure that it is expanding as you breathe in from your nose and contracting as you breathe out from your mouth.
By fostering this sense of heightened awareness and equanimity through the practice of meditation, one’s mind is able to detach from the chaos of the material world and enter into its deepest, most relaxed condition. In other words, treating yourself with a daily meditation session is akin to scuba diving: the further you dive, the calmer and more peaceful the water (your mind) becomes. It is in this way that regular meditators are able to increase their attention spans while studying, remain calm and reasoned during moments of immense stress (i.e. finals), engage in healthy self-reflection, and maintain a general peace of mind.
Additionally, within the past few decades, there has been a wealth of research indicating the direct relationship between meditation and reduction of stress. For example, Alice G. Walton, a Forbes journalist, describes a study conducted by Sara Lazar of Harvard University, which demonstrated how meditation changes “the structure of the brain” (Walton). In this research project, a controlled group of participants partook in a two month “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program in which they were required to practice various breathing and relaxation techniques. After this meditation program, researchers analyzed the brain scans of each student and discovered that there was an “increase [in] cortical thickness… which governs learning” and a decrease in the amount of “amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress.” This finding is quite remarkable because it not only provides empirical proof that meditation both increases the capacity for learning and reduces stress and anxiety, but it also reveals that the brain undergoes physical, biochemical transformations that reflect these positive changes.
This is precisely why meditation should be part of every individual’s daily routine: students and non-students alike. Granted, daily meditation is easier said than done. However, if you can take a moment in the coming weeks to recalibrate your mindfulness and gradually inculcate just eight minutes of meditation, then you will surely experience positive changes in stress levels, academic performance, and inner calm over time.