Now more than ever, young minds are racing to process a litany of information. The technology we hold at our fingertips keeps us hyper-aware of relevant news, which we can see at all hours of the day. It's rare for students to take a few minutes to just sit alone and breathe.
"The American College Health Association found in a 2015 study that a whopping 85.6% of respondents felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities. And according to a 2015 UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program study, only half of students surveyed rate their emotional health as “above average” and some 10% feel frequently depressed." -USA Today
This is why meditation has emerged as a method that schools like University of Minnesota, University of Vermont and Carnegie Mellon use to help tackle student burnout. Colleges are integrating designated spaces in dorms and school buildings specifically for the purpose of meditation, which is simple and inexpensive, yet effective for those participating. Below are four major mental benefits of meditation that could stick with you for the rest of your life.
1. Better Focus
At it's simplest, meditation involves sitting with your spine straight, eyes shut and attention on your breathing. If your mind wanders while doing so, don't feel discouraged. Just acknowledge that you got distracted or let other thoughts slip in, and take note of what you thought about. Then set yourself back on track. In his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold states that taking note of what subjects your thoughts naturally drift to can help you pinpoint where your attention wanders most. Once you know which thoughts to look out for, you can identify and stop them from sabotaging you in your daily life. This means that the mindfulness skills you practice while meditating can help you better maintain focus on schoolwork or time-sensitive tasks. Better focus means less distracting thoughts, as well as the capacity to remember information easily. A psychological study on mindfulness found that just two weeks of meditation training improved people’s focus and memory while taking the verbal reasoning section of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). There was an increase of 16 percentile points after the training, showing that the attention skills you learn while meditating can carry into important situations. Another study proved that students who meditated before a lecture, and then took a quiz, did better than those who did not. This enhanced attention span lasts over time, especially in those who continue to meditate every day.
2. Decreased Stress and Anxiety
Easy and inexpensive ways to reduce stress come as a welcome relief to overworked college students. With everyone from Wall Street executives, famous performers and Silicon Valley businessmen practicing mindful meditation, there has to be some support to the claim that meditation helps with managing stress and the accompanying depressed feelings.
The fact that meditation helps you identify racing or recurring thoughts is what makes it so effective in dealing with them. According to Alice G. Walton for Forbes, "A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good. Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. 'A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,' says Goyal. 'But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.'"
With the ability to tackle our own stress-inducing thoughts comes a calmer mind, heightened immune system and happier outlook on life.
3. Deeper Sleep
As college students, any time we get to just lay in bed and be unconscious is precious. So when we do, we have to make sure we're getting the best sleep possible. Fortunately, another benefit of meditation is that it is proven to enhance REM sleep and increase levels of melatonin. It is described in the hyperlinked study as a "self-regulatory phenomenon of sleep," so if you feel like your sleep cycle will never return to normal again, don't fret. Apparently, meditation has even been proven to help regulate serious sleep problems. According to Mindful.org, "Researchers conducted a study to see if mindfulness meditation would benefit those struggling with chronic insomnia. After eight weeks, those in the meditation training had less total wake time during the night, were more relaxed before going to bed and reduced the severity of their sleep problems. Plus, in a follow up study six months later, the insomnia sufferers had maintained a better quality of sleep." It is normal for your brain to sift through and reorder new information in your sleep. However, it must be easier to carry out when you are consciously controlling the information that clutters your mind. That way, you'd be giving your brain the room for a better night's rest.
4. More Positive Emotions
According to Mark Reck, a coordinator of UVM’s Mind-Body Wellness Program, meditation helps students handle the complex emotions that come with transitioning from home to school and the responsibilities that come with adulthood. Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, also says, “Many college students are suffering from anxiety and depression … mindfulness can particularly help people to work with difficult thoughts and emotions.” Remember what was said earlier about being able to identify what types of thoughts pop into your head? Negative emotions are one type you should be identifying and redirecting when they come about. According to Mindful.org, "Becoming less identified with our emotions and thoughts helps those thoughts lose power. A Harvard study found that mind-wandering, which often means drifting to these negative thoughts, was linked to unhappiness."
5. Stronger Relationships
On top of schoolwork, building and maintaining healthy relationships can be incredibly difficult in college. Romantic relationships and friendships can easily slip away from lack of contact, especially if you aren't in any of the same classes or cannot find free time to spend together. Not only does meditation help you be more present and focused when you are around others, but you can approach conflict with a level head. According to Alexandra Duron at Greatist.com, "In one study, people who meditated and tried to problem-solve with their partner approached the issue with less hostility and a better mood."
Overall, meditation helps us become more aware and maintain a stronger hold on our turbulent thought processes. Once we can identify distracting or stressful thoughts, we can better control them when relaxation or focus is necessary. Meditation can last anywhere from a minute to an hour or longer. As long as you stick to it, you will notice results on your mental health and a welcome change in the way you think.
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