University can be a stressful experience with so much information to take in and deadlines to keep – plus the pressure of being away from home and loved ones, often for the first time.
Mindfulness is a simple form of mediation, often focused on the breath. At its core it teaches us to pay attention to the present moment; it is the art of noticing.
Backed by science, mindfulness meditation has gained popularity in the West, with businesses and CEOs using it to build leadership skills and achieve business goals. It can also be a great tool for students, reducing stress and increasing well-being and productivity.
As a PhD student and yoga teacher I have experienced the benefits of yoga and mindfulness techniques for my studies and well-being. Ancient yoga texts talk about 'stilling the fluctuations of the mind'.
The mind tends to swing from the past (regret or reflection) to the future (worries or fantasies that are yet to happen) and doing this can often bring stress, anxiety and take us away from focusing on (and enjoying) what's happening in the present moment.
During my PhD I have let myself become frozen with fear when thinking about the future, for example when working on a new chapter and worrying it's not good enough.
Although this is natural, having the mind focus on the future in this way made me stressed and self critical, meaning than rather than write I just worried about writing!
How mindfulness can help your studies
Mindfulness practices help anchor the mind, creating space to become aware of our thoughts and feelings, and keeps us in the present moment, all of which helps reduce stress and anxiety and boosts levels of attention and concentration.
Focusing on the the breath allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and then start to let go of struggling with them.
Mindfulness helps you realise you thoughts come and go of their own accord and that you are not your thoughts; as you notice negative thoughts come up, learn to let them go – they do not serve you.
Know that the mind will wonder when you mediate (this is normal!) and don't frustrated with yourself. All this helps us to become less judgemental and instead more compassionate and patient, letting go of critical and negative feelings.
The increased capacity for awareness also helps us to respond skilfully (act) rather than to react to external and internal situations.
Dr Katy Peplin, an academic turned graduate coach, found that mindfulness helped take her out of her anxious mind: "Remembering that I had a body that lived in a specific time and space really helped when my anxiety kicked up when writing."
How mindfulness can help reduce stress at college
For students, mindfulness practices (and mediation in general) can be extremely helpful in getting you through stressful times.
At university there is a lot questioning, critical analysis, feedback and reflection and it can be easy to become self-critical.
Mindfulness can help all students (struggling or not) be more productive; it can help reduce depression, low moods, low self esteem, and anxiety; it increases well-being, self-compassion, compassion towards others and increases emotional resilience. A powerful tool!
Mindfulness doesn't have to come in the form of a daily seated/supine mediation (although this is highly recommended!) - have a look at the ideas below, try them out and notice the difference in your mind and work.
Mindfulness exercises for university students
- Mediation practice, seated or lying down - take a fixed time time out of your day, maybe first thing in the morning, or at night to help with sleep, to sit for 5 minutes or more and mediate. Having rituals can help - for example lighting a candle to set the mood. Focus on the breath, noticing each inhale and exhale, or do a body scan meditation. There are lots of online resources and apps like Headspace or Stop, Breathe and Think are great tools for simple guided mediations.
- When you sit down at a lecture, to write an essay or read a book, take a few minutes to close your eyes and focus on the breath, bringing the mind to stillness and focus.
- If your want more activity and to get away from your desk, take a walk or run and do so with a mindfulness practice, noticing all the details - your feet, the temperature, the sounds, the light, your breath. When you notice your mind wonder off to something else, gently bring it back to your walk or run.
- Commit to focusing on the present moment when you sit down to read or write, removing any other distractions. Maybe set a timer, committing to be 100% focused for a certain time.
- Away from academic life try doing another activity mindfully (eating, cooking, drawing, take photos, crafting) - being fully focused and noticing the details. This helps shift the mind to the present and brings a sense of calm.
Rebecca Enderby is a PhD student in the Geography Department at Kings College London, in the final months of her PhD. She is also a London based yoga teacher. She is passionate about the physical and mental benefits of yoga and yoga philosophy and plans to work with graduate students, using the tools of yoga to bring more balance, well-being and productivity to academic life. She co-hosts a fortnightly Twitter event on well-being for PhD students, #MindfulPhD, with fellow PhD student Natasha Lindfield (@nlindfield) and PhD student turned graduate well-being coach, Dr Katy Peplin (@KatyPeplinCoach). Follow Rebecca on Twitter and Instagram @enderbyyoga and on Facebook at Rebecca Enderby Yoga.
Photos by Green Chameleon, Alexis Brown, Clay Banks and Jiří Wagner on Unsplash