Lifestyle Staff Writer | Sydney Dawes | firstname.lastname@example.org
At the end of last semester, thousands of students experienced it: cramming for exams, madly typing papers, sorting through piles of notes, scrambling to finish up group projects, sleepless nights and tired eyes. Many students experienced headaches and sore muscles, too. Lack of sleep, which suppresses the immune system, caused other students to catch a record amount of colds and flu during this past finals week. All this, due to stress.
Although there are many ways to reduce stress, some of them can be very time-consuming. Let’s face it: many of us don’t want to give up an hour of our time to catch a yoga class when we have papers to submit and exams to cram for. That’s why a popular trend, mindfulness, is popping up in the professional world and making its way into the college realm.
Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present.” Simply put, mindfulness is a light form of meditation that focuses more on the breathing part, rather than the spiritual aspect.
Mindfulness has three main components: posture, breath and thought, according to the website Mindful. Let’s start with achieving a mindful posture.
You can have a mindful posture basically anywhere. When sitting in a chair, your feet should be planted on the ground. If sitting on a pillow, your legs should be crossed in front of you.
Make sure your back is straight (not stiff) and you’re sitting tall. If you aren’t sure if you’re sitting tall enough, bring your shoulders to your ears and then roll your shoulders back. Your upper arms should rest by your sides, allowing your hands to naturally fall close to your knees.
Your chin should be tilted ever so slightly downward, and you should be focusing on somewhere ahead of you. Don’t hone in on one thing specifically; the point of mindfulness is to focus more on your current state and breathing than your actual surroundings. If you find yourself focusing on one object in front of you, close your eyes.
Now that you’re settled into your mindful posture, you can begin your mindful breathing process. Breathe in slowly and deeply, allowing air to fill your belly rather than your chest.
Here comes the tricky part of mindfulness: thought. Allow simple observations about your life — what you are doing, who you interact with, where you are — to roll in. Try not to make judgments. Mindfulness is not for you to try to figure out why your roommate made that weird comment this morning or why your S.O. never texted you back. This is a time of simple, positive thought and light reflection; nothing taxing or stressful. Once you feel your thoughts floating to your responsibilities or worries, stop and refocus your thoughts on the positive. Try to breathe deeply and think lightly for 5 to 10 minutes.
The Science behind Stress
To fully understand how something as simple as breathing can help you stay sane during this upcoming semester, you need to know what stress does to the body.
Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app, states that stress is the body’s natural response to threats and danger. When we feel anxious or frightened, certain regions of our brain kick into high gear to prepare for the worst.
The amygdala, which controls memory, emotion, and motivation, sends signals to the nervous system, warning it to be ready to act quickly. The brain also signals for more adrenaline and cortisol to be secreted into your bloodstream. This, in turn, causes your blood pressure to rise, your breathing to become heavier, and your heart rate to grow faster.
In moments when they’re necessary, stress reactions are crucial for the body. Over time, though, they begin to wear down on everyday bodily functions. When you are incredibly stressed out, you may notice you start feeling sick and may even lose your appetite. This occurs because stress shuts down certain functions of your body to compensate for others being put into hyper-drive. Thus, your immune system becomes practically worthless, and your digestive system slows down dramatically. Stress also softens different areas of your brain, making them slower to react and overall less effective.
How Mindfulness Works
According to Headspace, practicing mindfulness forces your nervous system to calm down by waking up the parts of your brain that were hindered by your over-reactive amygdala. When you begin to breathe more slowly and deeply, the neurons that were collecting in your amygdala begin to move to your prefrontal cortex. Given time, your body systems will begin to function at normal capacity. Mindfulness also has great physical and mental health benefits. It improves posture, lowers blood pressure, and gives you a stronger sense of self-awareness.
Finals week only hinted at how stressful this semester will be, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as last semester’s finals. By practicing mindfulness, you can begin to literally reshape the way you think.