Mindfulness in Periods of Stress

Part 1 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.


Transitioning to new environments is always difficult, especially for young adults entering adulthood. Many students find the transition from middle school to high school and high school to college to be an especially challenging time, as many key aspects of their lives start to shift.

As a result, many students find themselves feeling stressed or anxious, not knowing how to deal with these emotions in healthy ways.The phrase “take a deep breath” is sometimes useful when dealing with an immediate issue, but most students find themselves constantly stressed or anxious. This is why increasing awareness of mindfulness practice among young adults can provide many students with the relief they need from the pressures they face in their worlds. It is important to communicate to them that mindfulness practice does not have to be a difficult, time-consuming activity, nor is it “weird” to take time for themselves to care for their mental health.

Mindfulness as a practice is defined as “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment, produces beneficial effects on well-being and ameliorates psychiatric and stress-related symptoms” (Hölzel, 2011). The practice of mindfulness is made up of formal and informal practices. Formal practices usually involve finding a comfortable position, closing or lowering the eyes, listening to a recording (optional) and focusing on breathing and other introspections. Informal practices can range from mindfully eating with no distractions to complimenting strangers. To benefit from mindfulness, we have noticed that a combination of formal and informal practices has helped us to more easily integrate mindfulness into our daily lives.

This essay outlines some of the formal and informal mindfulness practices that parents, teachers, school administrators, and other people who interact with young adults can educate their students about to help transitioning young adults deal with stress and anxiety, and to help them bring awareness of themselves into their busy lives.

 

Mindful Meditation

Mindful meditation is one of the main formal mindfulness practices that can serve as a great resource for anyone who seeks to explore “attention regulation, body awareness, emotion regulation, and change in perspective on the self” (Hölzel, 2011). These four areas are typically established as areas in which mindfulness has had a statistically significant benefit. Scientific research has also shown that “mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures,” which are structures in the brain that work cooperatively to enhance self regulation (Hölzel, 2011).

A good way to begin mindfulness meditation is to practice guided meditation, which involves listening to an audio recording that can guide one through their first practices. These can be found all over the Internet, and some accredited names to look for include: Susan Bauer-Wu, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Lois Howland, Steven Hickman, and Kristin Neff. It is best to set a goal to practice four times a week for a minimum of 20 minutes each time. However, it is important to set goals that work best for you and your schedule, while keeping in mind that when it feels like there is no time for mindfulness practice, that may be when it is needed the most.

Our personal experiences with formal practice has been quite helpful so far in providing a “brain break” during my busy college life. An article in Scientific American titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime” highlights the importance of taking breaks throughout the day, whether to walk in nature, nap, or practice mindful meditation. This article introduces the idea that during mindfulness breaks “the brain…concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties” which allows it to “consolidate recently accumulated data” and improve memory (Jabr, 2013). I have felt that taking mindfulness meditation breaks has helped to improve my awareness. At first, I felt that I was more aware during the mindfulness practices and slowly, I felt that awareness seeping into other aspects of my life, helping me to live more fully. Studies have shown that mindfulness and neuroplasticity, “the rewiring that occurs in the brain as a result of experience” are closely related (Davis, Hayes, 2011). Mindful meditation and other mindfulness practices can help with attention and that over time, “states experienced during mindfulness meditation eventually can become effortless traits” (Davis, Hayes, 2011).

Students may find mindful meditation especially benefitting as it can help to process new information learned in the classroom, focus better in class, and retain information longer over time.

 

Mindful Communication

The word “active listening” is often used in schools to promote a higher order of listening among students. In fact, many mindfulness techniques are utilized in “active listening.” One of the most important aspect of mindful listening is creating powerful silences. An article titled “Compassionate Silence in the Patient–Clinician Encounter: A Contemplative Approach” describes a few types of silences that we all experience in our lives, and how to harness the power of silence. Some of these silences include awkward silences, invitational silences, and compassionate silences. These silences are created “to convey empathy, allow [someone] time to think or feel, or to invite [someone] into the conversation in some way” (Back, Bauer-Wu, Rushton, Halifax, 2009). It is quite interesting that one can convey his or her mental state through creating powerful silences.

As listeners, it is important to identify listening habits in order to be aware (or mindful) about positive and negative habits. Speaker Focused listening often the most conducive practice, but it is also important to identify what type of listener or listening habits you tend to have so that you can cultivate mindfulness and “both the speaker and listener can reside in the moment, non-judgmentally” (Bach, Trail, 2017). I have noticed that just by identifying some of my listening habits as positive or negative and modifying my listening habits accordingly, my listening abilities have sharply improved and surprisingly, even my friends and family have noticed these changes when I am listening to them speak. Students can utilize these techniques to become better listeners, improve interpersonal relationships, and build and create friendships. Administrators can use these techniques to provide counseling services to students and also just listening to students when talking to them in formal and informal situations to make them feel secure and supported. The following list comes from a handout from our mindfulness class:

  • Listener Focused: Listening to words but focusing in what they mean to you
    • Surface Listening: Pretending to listen while thinking about something else
    • Autobiographical Listening: shifting the focus from the speaker to you
    • Interruptive Listening: interrupting the speaker to say what you are impatient to say
    • Inquisitive listening: listening with self-serving curiosity
  • Problem Focused: Sharp focus on the words but lacking awareness of the context
    • Editorial Listening: interrupting to correct or revise the speaker’s words or to
    • finish his or her sentences
    • Solution Listening: listening with the intention of providing answers, solving the speaker’s problem, or offering advice
  • Speaker Focused: Full attention to the words and acute sense of the environment and context
    • Deep listening: listening with the intention to understand, not solve, react, or judge
    • Radical listening: listening with the intention to be a vessel for your partner so that even the unspoken has room to find meaning

 

Self Compassion

During tough times, students may have increased doubts about their self-worth and have negative feelings towards themselves. However, it is important to remember that nobody is perfect and that you are beautiful with you flaws. When you find that you are treating yourself harshly, go through the following practice to bring compassion towards yourself (Neff, 2015):

  • Pause and acknowledge the difficulty: This is a moment of suffering
  • Remind yourself: Suffering is part of life
  • Remember: You are not alone, you are not abnormal, isolated
  • Affirm: May I be kind to myself in this moment
  • Extend kindness, respond with warmth: May I give myself the compassion I need right now
  • Give yourself what you would give to a friend

From personal experience, mindfulness has made me aware of how hard I am on myself. I aim for perfection, in a competitive school environment, and am often frustrated when I can’t accomplish my goals in the way that I hoped. I have also realized that I try to hide my flaws. However, through mindfulness I have realized that my flaws are what make me beautiful and make me who I am. I’ve begun to accept my flaws and try to learn or improve them.

Throughout the process, I tell myself that it is ok to be imperfect and that I am enough as long as I am trying to be the best person I can be.

 

Mindful Eating

During times of stress, there is an increased likelihood for students to resort to “emotional eating” or eating as a means to suppress negative emotions. Research has shown that stress is indeed an important factor in the progression of addiction and addiction relapse (Dvorsky 2014). As well, uncontrollable stress has been shown to change eating patterns and the noticeability of hyperpalatable food consumption. Hyperpalatable food is described as food that is engineered to surpass the “rewards” of traditional foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts through the injection of increased levels of sugar and additives. These negative effects of stress can further lead to increased risk of other health issues, such as obesity and metabolic diseases.

However, emotional eating can be alleviated through the practice of mindful consumption. Mindful consumption has the goal of being aware of what our body has just consumed. The practice of mindful consumption emphasizes the importance of reflecting on the factors that promote mindful eating, rather than classifying food as “good or not”. Below are some exercises that work to promote mindful eating towards a healthier consumption lifestyle.

Awareness of your food and drink intake:

  • Take time to be aware of what your body is consuming, whether it be food, drink, or drugs (prescription and nonprescription). What do you notice? How do you feel after consumption?
  • Make sure to be gentle with yourself throughout the reflection. (Westbrook et. al, 2013)

Awareness of your eating patterns:

  • As an exercise, it is encouraged to start by timing your quiet and efficient consumption of a meal, without multitasking with a computer or phone. If you find that it is rare that you have this opportunity for a reflective meal, consider the factors that impede this from happening. As well, notice your body position throughout consumption, such as if you are slouched over. Research has shown that sitting hunched over and racing from place to place are activities that do not facilitate digestion and awareness of how much is being consumed.

From my personal experience with mindful eating, I have become more aware of my bad habits while eating. I often like to have my computer out and do work while I eat or eat very quickly due to a busy schedule. However, I realized through mindful eating that I was often eating more than I needed and continued eating to “get me through” doing my work. I also had the mindset of eating to be full, rather than putting much consideration towards what was a healthier option.

Mindful eating practices helped me become more aware of my bad eating habits and its impact on how my body feels, which further motivated me to begin working to change those behaviors.

 

Mindful Walking

In the busy environment of school, it is common for students to treat walking as a means of getting to place to place, such as in between classes, rather than an experience in itself. In particular, it is common to notice students with their eyes glued to their phone while they are walking. These actions however may not provide the downtime your brain needs (Fronsdal 2003). Mindful walking, on the other hand, promotes building concentration and can alleviate stress in more effective ways than sitting meditation. With long term practice, walking meditation can also help build strength and stamina.

In the practice of mindful walking, try to walk slowly and find your pace of ease. As you do so, bring attention to your legs and feet. While walking, feel the sensations of each step and break the steps of walking into lifting, moving, placing. During this, try to let go of everything else and focus on the steps. If you begin to get distracted by the environment, shift over to a “looking” meditation. This is also a meditation that can bring you to the present as you begin to become more aware of your surroundings (Fronsdal 2003).

From personal experience, I found through this practice that, as fast walker, I tend to focus on getting to a place rather than the journey getting there. While starting this practice, I have become aware of items in my surrounding that I have never noticed before. I feel like I have missed so many instances to notice the beautiful garden I pass by while walking to classes or noticing the clear sky floating above the library. In a broader sense, this practice has reminded me that life is about the journey not the destination, and to be aware of all the little, beautiful things in my life everyday.

 

Conclusion

Transition periods in students’ lives can be overwhelming. However, it is important to realize that it is something that occurs to others as well and that there are ways to cultivate healthy ways to deal with these stressful times. Mindful practices, such as self-compassion, mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful communication, and meditation, can help alleviate negative symptoms in the long run. As you begin to become more aware of how you are feeling, the situation, and your body, you may find that it becomes easier to deal with tough times. We also encourage you to also seek out formal training, such as through a mindfulness class. We both found that taking a mindfulness class has given us the tools to take the step forward to integrate these practices into our lives. Whether you decide to start on your own or through a class, it is important to note that change takes time, but you are taking an important first step by beginning to be aware of yourself and live in the present.


Resources:

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Retrieved from Scientific American website: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

Yau, Y. (2014, October 30). Stress and Eating Behaviors. Retrieved from National Institute of Health website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214609/

Dvorsky, G. (2014, May 12). How ‘Hyperpalatable’ Foods Could Turn You Into A Food Addict. Retrieved from http://io9.gizmodo.com/how-hyperpalatable-foods-could-turn-you-into-a-food-add-1575144399

Davis, D. (n.d.). What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research. American Psychological Association.

Fronsdal, G. (2003, December 1). Instructions for Walking Meditation. Retrieved from Insight Meditation Center website: http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/instructions-for-walking-meditation/

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

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