Spoiler alert: Science says meditation can improve memory, sleep, focus and even help with depression and anxiety. Read on to learn how.
The start of a new school year is an exciting time. There’s that fresh fall feeling in the air, the smell of a new notebook (or a new tab on your ‘notes’ app, if that’s more your thing) – and the optimistic notion that this might be YOUR year. Yes, the year you finally stick to the goals you set out for yourself, go to bed at a reasonable hour, stop procrastinating on assignments, and find time to do the things that make you happiest – coffee with a friend, pilates downtown, a yoga class, or even a good Facetime or IRL face time session. But before you know it, all of this striving to reach both your academic and social goals – not to mention the added stress of deadlines, pulling all-nighters, required reading, and that class or professor you’re not *too* fond of – may start piling up. Soon you’ll reach the point of extreme stress, exhaustion, or the dreaded burnout (we haven’t even talked about exam time and finals yet.) The external and internal stressors that affect students of all ages, particularly college students, are manyfold. The trick is to take little steps to manage it all before the “little” things turn into big ones.
That’s where meditation comes in.
Meditation is a technique for gaining awareness and perspective. It is an extended practice that allows you to observe your thoughts and feelings with a measure of distance and without judgment so that you can learn to understand them, cope with them, and grow from them.
Meditation and mindfulness are often associated with one another, but understanding the difference between them can help you know more about how to approach meditation.
“Meditation is the ability to withdraw from the senses and experience your Self. Mindfulness is a state of awareness, a quality of being. Mindfulness can be a technique to help you go into meditation, but it can also be a long-term, positive, side effect of meditation.” Says Karthik Chatapuram, Teacher with The Art of Living Foundation.
“Mindfulness is an active exercise that can be done while you’re walking – you feel your feet on the pavement. In meditation, you sit down, even for a few minutes and set the intention to want nothing, be nothing, and most importantly do nothing. It’s a conscious letting go of your identity – you have no chores, no tasks, no homework, no professors to answer to (just for a few minutes). When you sit to do nothing and let go…meditation just happens.”
In this way, mindfulness can be regarded as active, while meditation is idle – both of which can be beneficial to your wellness journey as a student. If you’re new to meditation, it may seem daunting at first – but one principle to remember is that your meditation practice is, for lack of better words – yours. It is a process you can approach however you feel suits you best.
Guided meditation is often one of the first places to start. Guided meditation can either be done in groups in person or on the go with one of the many apps available today. So whether you’re on your commute or need a 5-minute break from your assignment, hearing someone’s voice guide your thoughts into calm can be just what you need to refocus. Other times, simply sitting and turning your attention to the present – how your feet hit the ground, where your palms meet the surface, what the pace of your breath is – can also be a form of meditation. Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming; it just has to be meaningful.
One way to understand the principles of meditation is to imagine yourself as a fly on the wall in the top corner of the room and visualize observing yourself from above. This will help you become more aware of the way you sit and the way you breathe. If only this technique could be achieved in an exam room (we’re totally kidding).
Mediation is a practice that can accompany you in every stage of your life. Still, as a college student in a demanding academic setting, the benefits can be particularly valuable – and potentially even affect your scholarly outcomes.
Here’s why meditation can be useful for college students:
1. It improves focus.
With all the triggers that can get you out of focus such as hyper-connectivity and social media notifications (not to mention a class subject you may not find particularly interesting), concentrating on the task at hand may be an uphill battle. However, studies have shown that meditation reduces these ‘mind wanderings’ and allows for improved focus. Furthermore, a study and brain imaging data showed that repeated meditation increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be important for learning and memory.
2. Better memory.
Meditation and mindfulness may help you attain better short-term memory because they focus on being in the present. With fewer distractions and mind wanderings, you may be able to retain information and access it more effectively. When it comes to college students, a 2015 study showed that just “a one-semester mindfulness meditation course was able to improve learning effectiveness and both attention and memory aspects of cognitive performance among Taiwanese university students.”
3. Can provide better sleep.
We’ve all been there. Pulling an all-nighter only to find yourself mustering the courage to get to class with an extra-large coffee in hand (we could talk about how this excessive caffeine intake may affect anxiety, but that’s for another article.) Not getting enough sleep or not getting quality sleep may be a familiar feeling as a student – but it doesn’t have to. Meditation at any time of day but before you go to bed, in particular, can improve your sleep. Since meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system that allows you to go into deep relaxation and slow the pace of your breathing, practicing meditation right before bed can increase the chance of having a good night’s sleep.
4. Can reduce depression.
Meditation can reduce negative thinking, as well as the stress and anxiety that trigger depression. One of the building blocks of meditation is to be aware without judgment, and this sense of acceptance can keep negative thoughts at bay. In a 2018 study, meditation training proved to be successful in reducing depression and anxiety symptoms amongst university students.
5. Can relieve anxiety.
41.6% of college students stated anxiety as the top presenting concern, and that’s no surprise with all the looming deadlines. Anxiety, often associated with feelings of “what if”s and “worst-case scenarios,” may be minimized with the practice of meditation and mindfulness, which focuses on accepting the current situation and being fully in the present.
The best part about meditation for college students is that it doesn’t take a lot of your precious time (although it does take commitment). Meditation is a marathon, not a sprint, and just 3-5 minutes a day can make a difference in how you feel and focus. Once making it a habit, soon you may be seeing the benefits, if not in the long term, at least in those 5 minutes where you forget you’re a student, that crazy schedule – and give yourself space to just be.