Part 6 in a weeklong series of blog posts written by undergraduate students from the 2017 spring-semester class, “Mindfulness & Compassion: Living Fully Personally and Professionally” at the University of Virginia.
Freshman year is a unique experience because everything about college and your life as a student is so new: new friends who may be very unlike your friends back home; 500-person classes, so much bigger than anything that you probably experienced in high school; and a new dorm room you are suddenly supposed to call home. At your old school, you likely had a sense that you knew what to expect from life, day to day. In fact, you had achieved a certain level of control and comfort within those surroundings. But now you have entered an entirely new world. When issues arise, they can feel like evidence that you are not coping well with the changes, or that you are not going to be able to hack it in this new place.
Mindfulness in New Environments
These intense fears and interpretations of small events as dire relate to the concepts of isolation and overidentification. Isolation is the first step: it is that “egocentric fallacy that, “it’s just me,” who is experiencing the given problem. This isolation then can lead to over-identification with the problem, where the problem becomes part of a larger, more dramatic storyline (Neff, 2016). Formal mindfulness practices can allow for one’s own subjective reactions to an experience to be detached from the situation at hand, which allows for a more objective understanding of it. For instance, you may feel stressed out because you do not have as many friends as you thought you would by now. Instead of repressing the negative feeling or over-identifying with it, you can use a technique known as reperceiving, a process by which “what was previously ‘subject’ becomes ‘object,’” (Shapiro et al., 2006). Consequently, you would be able to view this situation from a more neutral or more positive stance and be able to take the actions necessary to solve the problem in a more productive manner.
In order to use the reperceiving technique, it is important to be in touch with your emotions and have a clear view of reality. Doing a body scan is a technique that helps me connect with my feelings when a challenge clouds my brain. The technique brings awareness to different parts of the body, allowing one to notice without judgment the sensations that arise. As demonstrated through research by Farb et al. (2012) on mindfulness and emotion regulation, “such practices are to improve access to the constantly shifting sensory experiences available in present-moment sensation, and to develop insight as to when one’s mind has wandered so that attention may be redirected to the present moment.” During many difficult moments I have faced in the past, anxiety was caused by vivid speculations created in my mind about events that never happened. Body scans have rescued me from dark pits I have put myself into by bringing me back to reality. For example, one Saturday night as I laid in bed, music and laughter coming from my neighbors interrupted my sleep. I quickly felt negative emotions build up as I speculated that my neighbors did not care about me, and I took their lack of consideration personally. However, instead of allowing my anger to continue increasing, I decided to do a body scan. The scan brings awareness to the present moment and helps one focus on “the transient nature of thoughts, emotion, memories, mental images, and physical sensation” (Farb et al., 2012). During the scan I focused on each part of my body, and paid careful attention to the areas of tension. I acknowledged my feelings with curiosity and without judgment. In turn, the practice broke my negative thinking pattern. As I began to think clearly, my negative feelings slowly dissipated. At the end of the scan I felt at peace and was able to go back to sleep as acknowledge the noise I heard, as it truly was, just noise.
The Benefit of Self-Compassion Practice
The problem may be real, but the storyline that we create around the problem simply is not accurate in scale or degree. In many cases, once we are able to separate the issue at hand from the storyline, we often realize that the problem is much smaller than we first thought. Often, the storyline itself is the majority of the problem, if not the problem entirely. Formal self-compassion practices help introduce the concept that we ultimately have a choice: we can immediately turn to self-judgment, and isolate ourselves through cold self-criticism, or we can learn to shift our response to one of self-kindness, where we recognize ourselves as inherently imperfect people and extend care towards our own well-being in the same way we would for a dear friend (Neff, 2016).
For college freshman, feeling isolated in a culture of academic and social competition, the most important part of self-compassion practice may be learning to recognize one’s common humanity. Whatever stress, sadness, anxiety or even isolation you are feeling is part a shared human experience, no doubt shared even in that very moment by many other freshman students, including those going out when you stay in, or passing the tests that you wish you did better on.
Mindful Management of Relationships
Another big challenge that many students encounter when starting out in college is learning to navigate new relationships. The challenges associated with interpersonal relationships when you are new in college can take many different forms, but these can be better managed through the use of both formal and informal mindfulness practice. For example, you may have had the same friends your entire life, and so the sheer thought of making new friends may seem incredibly overwhelming and stressful. Further, when you do meet new people, you may wonder who your “real” friends amongst them are, thus creating another source of stress. The result of such moments can be a rush of emotions leading to maladaptive coping strategies, such as panic. Much of this stress comes from our fixation on our immediate, visceral reaction to the present moment and the fact that things are not the way we want them to be at that moment. However, if you can ‘step back’ and evaluate things for what they are, bringing greater objectivity to the present situation, you can approach it in a more neutral manner and have a more positive response, a process known as positive reappraisal (Garland et al., 2009).
Another way relationships in college can become a source of stress is by living with a roommate for the first time. It may feel overwhelming to have to share a space or adjust to another person’s schedule. Effective communication is essential to a positive relationship between you and your roommate, and your ability to mitigate any potential conflicts. Mindfulness practice can play a key role in how this is done, not only through the emotion regulation that comes with positive reappraisal, but additionally through the practice of mindful listening. Typically when we engage in conversation with someone, we may listen halfway, or listen only enough to form our own reply, and we are not fully engaged with what they are saying. However, “mindful listening” involves the cultivation of mindfulness in the way we listen in order to be fully in the moment when engaging in conversation, leading to better understanding of the other person. One manner of approaching this could be the informal practice of “compassionate silence” which has been described as “[shifting] out of your narrative, story-constructing mode of thinking and into giving attention to each moment,” while, “anchoring your attention in your breath” (Back et al., 2009). In such a state, you are able to listen to a person objectively and unfiltered by your immediate subjective reaction, which allows for a better understanding of the message they are trying to convey.
Positive reappraisal and mindful listening go hand in hand. Because reappraisal helps us to deal with the emotions of a situation with more acceptance and awareness, we are better able to engage in mindful listening because we are in a more neutral, instead of negatively–charged, emotional state (Guendelman et al., 2017). In essence, when it comes to dealing with relationships, we gain from mindfulness in a two-fold manner; we not only learn to manage the stress that emerge from the relationships, but also learn how to avoid the conflicts that may escalate in potentially stressful situations.
While starting out college can seem like a daunting moment and certainly presents its set of challenges, the practice of mindfulness can help you successfully take them on. Whether it comes from new social situations, learning to manage relationships or adapting to the academic workload, using mindfulness practices like body scans, to cultivate habits such as positive reappraisal can make you deal with the potential stress from these situations with ease.
Back, Anthony L., Susan M. Bauer-Wu, Cynda H. Rushton, and Joan Halifax. “Compassionate Silence in the Patient–Clinician Encounter: A Contemplative Approach.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 12.12 (2009): 1113-117. Web.
Farb, Norman A. S., Adam K. Anderson, and Zindel V. Segal. “The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders.” Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2012. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
Garland, Eric, Susan Gaylord, and Jongbae Park. “The Role of Mindfulness in Positive Reappraisal.” Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 July 2009. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
Guendelman, Simón, Sebastián Medeiros, and Hagen Rampes. “Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: Insights from Neurobiological, Psychological, and Clinical Studies.” Frontiers. Frontiers, 06 Feb. 2017. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
Shapiro, Shauna L., et al. “Mechanisms of mindfulness.” Journal of clinical psychology 62.3 (2006): 373-386.