Written by April Houston, MSW/MPH, graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis
The start of a new school year is a stressful time for many – students, teachers, and parents included. Summer is often a more laid back time of year, with less deadlines and more daylight available for leisure activities. Perhaps you were able to take a short (or long) vacation somewhere special. Hopefully, your body had some time to rest and your mind to re-charge. But now, all that is over. It’s time to rejoin the rat race, get back down to business, and focus on the work at hand.
But what if you could take some of that summer calm with you into the fall semester? Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the errands, tasks, and projects on your plate, what if you could approach them with a clear mind and an optimistic spirit? It is possible, and it can transform your mental health and resilience.
Mindfulness for stress management
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, first noticed the value of mindfulness as a treatment for stress and anxiety back in 1979. Now, it is increasingly being used by adults, teenagers, and children in schools and offices all across the US. Scientifically observed benefits include: improving attention, reducing stress, assisting emotional regulation, increasing capacity for compassion and empathy, and reversing the effects of aging.
Mindfulness, according to Kabat-Zinn, is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” This is often done through meditation, or taking a few minutes of stillness in a quiet place to focus on your breathing or visualize certain imagery.
A common misconception of meditation is that it involves keeping a blank mind, which most people find impossible. In a culture full of constant activity, taking time to be quiet often brings a flurry of thoughts and anxieties along to distract us. The idea of mindfulness is that we acknowledge the thoughts that appear, make note of them without judgment, and then allow them to pass and try to redirect your attention back to your breath. It can be tricky at the beginning, but it gets easier with practice.
Mindfulness is not just for meditation, though. It can be integrated into all aspects of your day. Eating mindfully – thinking about and appreciating the texture and flavor of each bite – can help you to eat less and lose weight. Mindfulness can also be used while commuting, cleaning, exercising, interacting with family or colleagues, and basically at any time. Just pause, breathe, and notice the way you are feeling and the sights, sounds, and smells that surround you. Become aware of what is going on inside and outside your body.
Give it a try. What do you have to lose, apart from that hurried, stressed out feeling? It just might help you to find a bit of summer vacation within your school week.