This article originally appeared in The Eagle’s December 9 special edition.
How are you feeling right now? Take a moment and really think about it. There is no right or wrong answer to this question, yet the practice of actively asking yourself and deciphering the answer can work wonders for your health, both mentally and physically. The process of actively and nonjudgmentally paying attention to your thoughts and feelings is called mindfulness, and it can have a significant impact on one’s mental health.
Mental health is one of the most pressing health concerns on college campuses. It is not a problem that is specific to our school or our city; it is an issue at schools all over the country and the globe. The high numbers of college students reporting depression and anxiety is an obvious sign of the need for a multi-faceted public health approach to prevention and care of mental illness at colleges and universities.
While there are useful options available to students, like the Counseling Center on AU’s campus, there are often obstacles in the way of receiving immediate care. The later we get into the semester, the longer the wait list becomes to meet with an appropriate counselor. This shows why it is so important to realize that there are methods we can use on our own to make a difference in our mental health and ability to cope.
In our western society, many people may have preconceived notions of mindfulness being a very spiritual, even religious, practice. Mindfulness does have its roots in Buddhism and practices that center around mindfulness like yoga, tai chi, centering prayers and chanting all derive from the religion. However, the practice of mindfulness has no religious requirement. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has a Ph.D in microbiology, was the first to research the positive effects of mindfulness in a medical setting in the late 1970s.
Kabat-Zinn developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, program which was successful in helping to alleviate medical conditions including chronic pain. Kabat-Zinn emphasizes in his teachings that while the practice of mindfulness began with Buddhism, it is accessible and beneficial to anyone, regardless of beliefs.
Being mindful does not require you to sit in lotus position and repeat the mantra “Om” until you feel relaxed. It also does not need to be a constant mental state. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to return to that state of mind throughout the day, but even just sitting quietly for ten minutes a day is worthwhile.
To be mindful, simply pay close attention to how you are feeling. Start by recognizing your breathing by making each inhale and exhale more intentional. You may find yourself only able to scratch the surface when you try to decipher how you are really feeling. I know that in my experience I struggle to recognize what exactly my emotions are because they tend to get jumbled in the thousands of thoughts and to-do lists in my mind at any given time. If you’re like me, it’s okay; the more you practice the better you’ll become at understanding your feelings.
One of the most important facets of mindfulness is refraining from judgement. If you are feeling unhappy, acknowledge the feeling. It is easy to begin down the slope of negativity- “Maybe it it’s my own fault that things aren’t going my way,” or “Maybe I should be feeling more grateful”- but try to allow yourself to simply feel what you are feeling, and not judge yourself for it. The same way we know that it is impossible to be happy constantly, we must remember that the feelings we associate with negativity, like sadness, anger or dissatisfaction, are fleeting as well, and they do not define us.
There is an abundance of evidence to back up the claim that practicing mindfulness in your daily life for even ten minutes a day can work wonders on health. A study done by the National Institute of Health showed that people who practiced mindfulness meditation for an eight week period demonstrated significant increases in their immune system’s ability to fight off sickness. There have been several studies that demonstrate how mindfulness reduces feelings of stress, while increasing feelings of positivity. It can improve our ability to focus, better our memory, and even enhance our relationships.
There is an old Zen saying that goes, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for an hour”. From what I can tell it seems that everyone I meet falls into the ‘too busy’ category. Most of us aren’t willing to dedicate an hour a day to mindful meditation, but even ten minutes can profoundly decrease feelings of anxiety and increase positivity. Life is hectic, and stress is inevitable, but I encourage you to be present and mindful. See what dedicating a small amount of time every day to mindfulness can do for your health.
Olivia Richter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a columnist for The Eagle.