“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” — Psychology Today
Mindfulness is a common approach to relieving stress, and the above definition provides a great introduction for newcomers to the concept. Essentially, our everyday thinking patterns usually revolve around the past or the future. We fret about what our friend said to us yesterday morning and worry how our in-class presentation will go next week. Thinking this way causes stress because a) we can’t control what happened or what will happen and b) our mind tends to overthink and spiral into different scenarios, making us feel unjustly miserable. Mindfulness is a great way to de-stress because it trains our mind to focus on what is happening in the present (think sounds, smells, physical sensations) and letting these observations pass through it without overcriticizing every detail. Practicing mindfulness reminds us what we can control: the present and what we pay to attention in that present.
As the dreaded month before exam season has approached, I’ve compiled a few ways you can learn to be more in the now, in hopes that they will help ease any anxiety, exam-related or otherwise, you may have.
I’m sure you’ve heard of meditating before, as it is the best way to practice mindfulness. But the idea of emptying your mind and not thinking can appear daunting if you’ve never tried before. So let’s start small. For beginners, I’d advise to do it at night, sitting upright in a comfortable position. Use a timer and time five minutes to keep you from drifting off. In that time, breathe deeply and allow your thoughts to simply float through your head without judging or responding to them. If you find yourself getting distracted (and you will), try to guide your attention back to your breathing. It’s totally normal for your thoughts to wander — it’s the way our brain works! Don’t get frustrated and just pull them back to your breathing.
Here’s a more detailed guide on other mind exercises you can do once you get the hang of it. The Healthy Student Initiative also offers free drop-in meditation sessions throughout the week, mainly on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12-1PM in Room 102 of the Behavioural Science Building. Check them out; they’re a great way to practice in a group and ask questions if you need more help.
2. Capture the Present
Another great way I keep myself focusing on the now is by creating art out of the present. Personally, I like to take pictures and write in a journal, but you can choose any medium you enjoy. It’s a great way to keep perspective and appreciate what you have at the moment. It makes you realize that even during difficult and stressful times, you have many small reasons to feel happy and grateful. For example, did you have a great coffee this morning? Take a picture of it! Free apps like VSCO Cam are great for editing images to make them more artsy/fun. If you’re on the go, definitely pick up a small pocket notebook to throw in your bag for mini writing sessions. They don’t have to be expansive — simply write down what you’re feeling. In fact, a University of Chicago study proved that students who wrote down their worries right before an exam showed improved test scores!
3. Go Outside
The snow is melting and the weather is finally at a temperature that won’t freeze your face off (OK, most of the time). Take advantage of more daylight during the oncoming spring and go outside for a break. If you’re not an avid exerciser, take a walk around your neighbourhood or go on a short hike (if you live near hiking trails, even better). Remember to leave your electronics at home, and truly let yourself notice nature in action. Birds chirping, streams flowing, squirrels munching . . . I mean, nature has created a unique playlist just for you! Getting in touch with the environment is a great way to foster gratitude and happiness. And remember that nature is everywhere: you don’t necessarily have to be on a trail or by the lake to observe it. There is plenty going on right here on campus if you just direct your attention to it.
What are your methods of practicing mindfulness? Let us know in the comments or tweet me @yorkustudents!