Mindfulness can help manage our reaction to stress. Stress is unavoidable in our lives, and mindfulness includes one set of tools that can help us cope with stress. When we feel stress, our bodies and minds respond in a way that prepares us for fight or flight. Often, this may translate into physical or emotional constriction, narrow focus, worry and fear about the future, or activities like procrastination or distraction (e.g., through drinking, TV, internet/Facebook, emotional eating, etc.). We learn that the only way to deal with our stress is to avoid it or try to make it go away. But just like that annoying song that you can’t get out of your mind by trying not to think about it, attempting to ignore the stress in our lives does not make it go away.
Mindfulness is about an alternative way to relate to feelings of stress other than fight or flight mode. The essence of mindfulness is learning to bring our attention to the present moment in an open, nonjudgmental way. By doing so, it is possible to learn that uncomfortable feelings of stress do not need to be avoided or pushed away, and instead it is possible to welcome those feelings without our typical resistance to them. As a result, if we are not spending our energy trying to avoid or mitigate stress, we have much more freedom to do the things in life that are important to us. Research has linked mindfulness to other benefits including more compassion in relationships, less avoidance of thoughts or activities, better physical health, better immune system function, less worrying about the past or future, better sleep, and a better ability to cope with a variety of everyday stressors.
I think a lot of people have the idea that meditation means sitting cross-legged on a cushion chanting “OM.” While that may be helpful for some people, mindfulness can take a variety of forms, and people can incorporate it into many aspects of their daily lives. While some people may benefit from having a more formal, dedicated time and place to meditate, others experience benefits from doing some mindful breathing or relaxation right before class or an exam; before, during, or after schoolwork or studying; while walking across campus; before or while spending time with other people; while eating a meal; and as they are falling asleep. During mindfulness workshops, staff from the Counseling Center teach short exercises that people can practice throughout their days to help achieve a more relaxed, worry-free, centered, and open state of being. At the same time, mindfulness is not a panacea, so students experiencing more severe stress, depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, substance abuse, concerns with body image, or other marked distress, I would recommend that they set up an appointment at the Counseling Center (410-704-2512) to get feedback about the best course of treatment.
Exams can definitely be an added stressor on top of all the other stresses and pressures students already face. As finals are approaching this semester, consider practicing some basic mindfulness, which may even improve test performance. And if it seems like mindfulness is just one extra thing that you should do but don’t have time for, think again. There are even various apps or free downloads that can help you get started.
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