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Meditation & Mindfulness on Campus A Student Guide to Going Zen

Student life can be stressful, but that doesn’t mean students have to let stress take over their lives. By incorporating mindfulness and meditation into daily routines, students can not only relieve the pressure, but also improve their memory, focus and ultimately their grades. This guide explains what meditation and mindfulness are and how students can begin practicing them.

Meet the Experts

Todd Braver Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Radiology and Neuroscience; Washington University
Joseph Croskey Director of the Advising Center, Clarion University
Tara Huber Co-Founder & Chief Happiness Officer, Take Five Meditation
Jillian Pransky Author, Certified Yoga Therapist

WRITTEN BY Kenya McCullum

Mindfulness & Meditation 101

Although mindfulness and meditation are closely linked, they are not the same thing. This section provides information on what mindfulness and meditation are, as well as the benefits of practicing both.

What is mindfulness?

Every day, students are bombarded with distractions that can keep them from concentrating on the work they need to do. Mindfulness is a remedy for these distractions that promotes living in the present and focusing on what’s going on right now. In addition to increasing awareness, mindfulness helps people avoid being overwhelmed and overly reactive to what they’re experiencing from one moment to the next.

While meditation can help to increase mindfulness, people can practice mindfulness while doing any daily activity. Whether students are studying, spending time with friends or sitting in class, they can practice mindfulness by simply bringing a sense of awareness to everything they’re doing.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a process where people create a sense of deep relaxation and tranquility by calming down their mind. This can be done by concentrating on a certain point in the room, chanting a mantra, visualizing or focusing on the breath. Although many people may think meditation is only done while sitting on the floor with their legs crossed in the lotus position, mediation can also be practiced while standing, walking or lying down. Meditation can be done on its own, but it’s also associated with yoga, tai chi and Qi gong.

The benefits of mindfulness & meditation for college students

Mindfulness and meditation are both great ways for students to improve their health. And the benefits of these practices can also trickle into their academic lives. Here are some ways students benefit from meditation and mindfulness.

  • Relief from stress and anxiety

    Attending college is a high-pressure environment that can cause some students to develop anxiety from the constant demands. Studies show that practicing meditation regularly can help reduce anxiety by lowering the stress hormones in the body. For example, in one study published in the International Journal of Stress Management, a group of nurses who practiced meditation reported that their work-related anxiety decreased.

    Similarly, a study published by The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that a group of people participating in a mindfulness program for eight weeks was less likely to experience anxiety and depression, even when confronted with negative stimuli.

  • Increased focus

    People who practice mindfulness and meditation are more likely to focus on tasks and avoid distractions. According to research in Consciousness and Cognition that compared study participants that practiced mindfulness meditation to those who didn’t, the mindfulness group had higher attention spans and cognitive flexibility.

  • Improved memory

    Having a sharp memory is necessary for high academic performance, and practicing mindfulness can go a long way toward increasing students’ ability to remember their course material. A study in Psychological Science found that students who did mindfulness exercises had increased short-term memory. They were also less susceptible to distractions and had improvements in verbal reasoning.

How to Incorporate Mindfulness into College Life

Practicing mindfulness may seem like a daunting task—especially for students who are already juggling many responsibilities every day. But the fact is, mindfulness can easily be incorporated into any students’ lifestyle. The following are some techniques students can use to become more mindful.

  • Take deep breaths

    Taking deep breaths helps to slow down the mind and heart rate, which can go a long way toward alleviating stress. When students are feeling anxious about an upcoming paper or test, taking deep breaths will help them calm down so they can focus on the task at hand.

  • Maintain a gratitude journal

    When students are stressed out about school, they may focus on these negative feelings, which can eventually lead to depression and anxiety. Keeping a gratitude journal can cut through the negativity and remind students of the good things that are going on in their lives, despite the stress.

    By just taking a few minutes each day to write down what they’re grateful for, students can break through the negative chatter in their mind and pull themselves back into the present moment.

  • Pay attention to nature

    Nature is everywhere, but often people ignore it as they rush through their busy days. When students walk to class, they’re likely thinking about their work and not appreciating things the trees, grass and sun on campus. By paying attention to these things and appreciating them, students can enjoy the moment they’re in, rather than worrying about what they need to do next.

  • Do one thing at a time

    It’s not uncommon for students to multitask in order to get things done. However, that practice can overload the mind and increase stress. This ultimately leads students to be less efficient and effective in their work. Instead, students can be mindful of their work by prioritizing tasks and putting their full attention on one thing at a time.

  • Visualize

    Athletes, actors and executives use visualization to see themselves being successful, which helps them overcome feelings of self-doubt and fear. Students can also incorporate this mindfulness exercise into their day by seeing themselves acing a test, getting a good grade on a paper or raising their GPA. This will help them increase their confidence.

Easy Meditation Exercises for College Students

Most students regularly encounter stressful situations. In order to alleviate these feelings, they can practice the following quick and easy meditations exercises.

These meditations were provided by Tara Huber, Co-Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Take Five Meditation, and Jillian Pransky, author of Deep Listening:A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart.

Huber

Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit. Eyes closed and focus on your natural breath. Focus on slowing down and not getting sucked into “busyness” or the anxieties that can grow during the day. If thoughts come in, observe them without judgment and let them pass by.

Take a few moments to listen to the sound of breath, the sounds around you, quietly observing the moment. Practice for 5 to 10 minutes.

Huber

For a calming clarity of mind, alternative nostril breath work is perfect for this time. Sitting comfortably with a long spine, take your right hand and fold the pointer and middle fingers, leaving the thumb and ring fingers available for use. Seal your right nostril with your thumb, inhaling deeply through the left nostril then seal the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale out of the right nostril, inhale through the right nostril, seal, exhale through the left.

Continue with this alternate nostril breathing for sixteen rounds, deepening the breath with each round. Focus on relaxing the shoulders and maintaining a long spine. When you are done, take a moment to observe, checking in with your body and mind.

Pransky

Create gentle fists with your hands, and with each out breath, unfurl a finger from your palm. Pause and notice the full length of your inhale as it comes to you. For example, on your first exhale open your left thumb from your fist. Pause and enjoy an inhale. On your next exhale, unfurl your left index finger. Pause and enjoy an inhale. Continue until you have two open palms on your lap.

If you need more concentration, mentally chant a word of your choice for each finger unfurled. Find a word that evokes a mental state that may be useful to you like peace, clear or calm.

Huber

Conscious relaxation practice can help you dissolve stress and leave you feeling refreshed and energized. It’s the perfect practice for exam time. Give yourself about 20 minutes for a full practice. You can either sit comfortably or lie back on your back with limbs spread out, palms facing up by your hips.

Starting at the crown of the head, seek out the places in the body where you hold onto tightness and tension and systematically release it as you travel down the body. Simply focus on letting go of tensions and anxiety in the body. After a full body scan, remain still focusing on deep breaths. After a full practice you will feel deeply relaxed and anxiety free.

Expert Q&A

In this section, we discuss the importance of mindfulness and meditation with Joseph Croskey, Director of the University Advising Services Center at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and Todd Braver, professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences, Radiology and Neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis.

Why is mindfulness important for college students?

Braver

College is a time of great transition. For most students, it’s when they are first expected to start acting like adults: living independently, deciding how to manage their unstructured time and dealing with the distractions and stresses of negotiating a hectic and often high-pressured academic environment.

Developing mindfulness practices and skills can be a great way to deal with the increased pressure and stress. Just like other skills and habits that can be developed to improve health and fitness, such as exercise, eating right and getting a good night’s sleep, mindfulness is a way of improving mental fitness.

Although the scientific data on the benefits of mindfulness are still accumulating, there have been numerous studies documenting its benefits on psychological health in many different types of individuals, including college students. These studies have demonstrated that mindfulness can be an effective skill for reducing anxiety and stress, controlling attentional distractions and improving overall psychological well-being.

Just as college is the time when students develop their career interests and explore various extra-curricular opportunities, it is also a fantastic time to try to develop a mindfulness habit, and to explore whether it provides good benefits.

Croskey

Mindfulness can help students thrive, both personally and academically, in college. Students face significant stress in college, and this stress causes them to do poorly and drop out. Mindfulness is proving as useful an exercise as medication (with fewer adverse side effects) in managing stress and anxiety and assisting students in transition to college.

Seminal research found that there are measurable changes in brain structure and immune system function after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation practice. Additionally, mindfulness practice of at least an hour a week can help reduce binge drinking.

Students at Clarion University of Pennsylvania participating in a Koru Mindfulness seminar have found that mindfulness practices help them stay alert and get past their fears and distractions to focus on getting their work accomplished. They report feeling not quite as overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

Further, students feel like they are more productive when they practice meditation, and they have a sense that there is more time in the day to accomplish their to-do list. Another student said that it changed her attitude towards roommate disagreements. Also, they have said that it helps them to get to sleep easier.

How can students incorporate mindfulness into their daily routine?

Braver

There are lots of ways! Many students like to start off in a structured group format, with some instruction and guidance provided in a regular time and place. These days, many colleges do have such on-campus groups, often offered through health and wellness centers. Likewise, many yoga classes incorporate a mindfulness component to them, so these options are worth checking into.
Starting modestly is also the best option for many people. A great way to start is even to devote five minutes, a couple or more times a day, towards practicing mindfulness. It can be as simple as turning off all distractions, and trying to maintain attentional focus on your breathing during this short period. It’s amazing for most people how challenging that is at first, but with practice it gets easier! And many people start to notice the changes in their stress level, mood and ability to focus attention.

Finally, there are lots of great self-help resources available now. These include apps with both guided practices and timer resources to record and track progress. One that I personally like (and regularly use) is called Insight Timer, but there are lots of options available.

For those that want to learn more, there are many sources of information online and dozens of great books. A book I personally like quite a bit is called Mindfulness in Plain English.

Croskey

It’s like going to the gym to beginning an exercise regimen. Start where you are and practice (e.g., lift two lbs. for ten repetitions). After some time you will improve, then increase the weight and/or repetitions, diversify the exercises and you will get stronger.

The easiest way for students to begin a mindfulness practice is to pay attention to one cycle of breath, inhale and exhale, each day. Another way to practice focusing is to draw an X on a sheet of paper and keep their attention focused on the intersection of the X for one minute. When your mind wanders, gently return your focus on the X.

Alternatively, just sit for one minute and notice all sounds, near or far, always bringing your attention back to scanning for sounds. If they are curious, they can extend this focus on the breath, or another sensation (sound, feel of their feet on the ground, etc.) for up to ten minutes a day. If they find this beneficial, then they can incorporate longer practices, 20 to 40 minutes a day.

Further, students can be mindful, present of typical daily activities. For example, while showering, feel the sensation of the water, notice the smell of the soap, listen to the sounds. Also, while washing dishes, notice the feel of the warm, soapy water, listen to the splashes and clink of the dishes, notice the sensations on your hands. When your mind drifts off to planning or complaining the roommate isn’t helping, or other thoughts, bring your attention back to the dish in your hand.

Why should college students try meditation?

Braver

Even though today meditation is becoming more and more popular, many people still do not have a good idea of what it is all about. There are different types of meditation practiced, so it is useful to learn more about it first-hand.

Mindfulness meditation is a special type of meditation that has become more popular recently in the United States, because it has been subject to the most rigorous scientific research. Mindfulness meditation emphasizes control of attention, and the development of practical skills that can enhance psychological well-being. Although meditation arises out of ancient Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions, mindfulness meditation can be practiced by anyone and requires no religious commitments of any kind.

In the case of mindfulness meditation, it really just boils down to a more structured way of practicing mindfulness skills for a set period of time. Yet the amazing aspect of mindfulness is that it can also be practiced in a variety of ways throughout the day, such as while walking, exercising, eating or even while completing boring activities or chores.

Croskey

Recent research illustrates the many benefits of practicing meditation, including dealing with the ebb and flow of thoughts and emotions without getting carried away by them; being here now and experiencing the beauty of this moment; learning to enjoy life, relax more and worry less; and ruminating less about past experiences or future imaginations.

Studies have shown that mindfulness helps focus by tuning out distractions, improving memory, decision-making and attention skills. Additionally, improved dating. Couples even find that mindfulness enhances their relationships. People find physical, psychological and social benefits from practicing. It is not a panacea; it is not for everyone. However, it is very worth trying. It may be the next evolution in health care and well-being.

What is the best way for students who have never meditated to get started?

Croskey

It is recommended learning from someone who has a personal practice and has taught before. A student can typically find someone on campus familiar with meditation and that person can connect them to others. Organized programs are studied and have demonstrated positive benefits.

Koru Mindfulness, out of Duke University, is a prominent structured mindfulness and meditation program created for emerging adults (college age to 30 years old) found on several campuses. A retreat with a group like Inward Bound Mindfulness Education is an amazing introduction to the practices. The Greater Good Science Center online from UC Berkeley provides useful information. UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have excellent resources too.

Increasingly, schools across the nation have contemplative practices (including yoga, tai-chi, chi-gong, TM, Centering Prayer) or mindfulness centers, often associated with a department on campus devoted to well-being. Participating in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is how many people begin to incorporate mindfulness into their life.

You can also find retreats at a variety of places, such as the Garrison Institute, Omega, Spirit Rock, Kripalu, etc. Or participate in workshops like the Search Inside Yourself program created at Google.

However, the easiest way to begin is to download an app like Simple Habit, Insight Timer or Koru and follow the guided practices. There are other apps, Buddhify, Calm, Headspace, Meditation Made Simple, Stop Breathe & Think, to name a few. Students can certainly find guided mindfulness teachers and practices on Youtube and SoundCloud.

How can practicing mindfulness and meditation help college students with their studies?

Braver

A great way to start incorporating mindfulness into a daily routine is to take five-minute mindfulness breaks during study periods. These can be especially helpful when you find yourself losing attentional focus, getting distracted or feeling anxious or stressed about your studies.

To be clear, mindfulness is not some magic pill or solution that makes all problems go away. But building up a mindfulness practice habit can be a very effective way to help reduce stress and increase the ability to sustain attentional focus and concentration.

Croskey

Students actually learn how to pay attention. Although we’ve been admonished to pay attention since our youth, we are rarely taught how to do it. Research shows that meditation practice could help students improve their academic performance. With practice, meditation can alter our brain structure in ways that might boost the ability to concentrate, remember and feel happy, positive emotions.

What are the long-term benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation?

Braver

College provides a fantastic opportunity to start developing healthy habits. Laying down these habits now can make them much easier to build upon and maintain after college, when even more life transitions are likely to occur (e.g., jobs, marriage, family, additional financial responsibilities, etc). Luckily, we are living in a time when it is easier than ever to access resources, groups and information to start building up a mindfulness habit.

Although the research on long-term benefits is still scarce, much of it has shown that long-term mindfulness practitioners tend to have improved health outcomes, enhanced psychological well-being and better attentional function.

Mindfulness Resources