Do college students feel stress when they think about being in a new environment, balancing studies and a part-time job while engaged in a relationship with not only a boyfriend or girlfriend but also their own family? And, do you suppose they feel anxiety when they think of their lives after college? Will they be able to get a good job, pay off their student debt, and live the American dream, complete with a home, a spouse, children, and a pet? Yes, they do get stressed about their present situation and yes, they do get anxious about their future. In fact, according to a study by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, since 2007, students that report anxiety as a reason for counseling has risen almost thirty percent. The same study also tells us that Millennials have the highest reported stress levels of any generation before them.
One can easily deduce that stress and anxiety can lead to depression and depression can lead to attempted suicide or, worse, successfully takings one’s own life. Take it from me as someone with personal experience in the matter because it was exactly those feelings that led me to attempt to take my own life in 1989 during the Spring semester of my sophomore year.
And it doesn’t get any easier when you’re an adult. According to Stress in America, the top reasons for stress among adults are work, money, family, and personal health. Stress has been linked to the top six causes of death among adults including cancer, heart disease, and suicide. So, no matter if you’re twenty-one or fifty-one, stress and anxiety are all too real emotions that we need to deal with on an almost daily basis.
There’s no doubt that talking to someone is of a great benefit, be it a friend, family member, educator, clergyman or other trained professional, but by the time you get there, the feelings have already rooted deeply and it will be an effort to pull the weeds out, albeit, it is worth it to try. I’m certainly not saying that it’s too late, it never is, but what I am saying is that there may be some way to help you from getting there, to begin with. That thing is mindfulness.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an oft-quoted resource on Mindfulness and founder and Executive Director for the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines it as “paying attention to the present moment with intention, while letting go of judgment, as if our life depends on it.” Essentially, the practice is designed to prevent rumination of the past while, at the same time, hold back your desire for predicting the future. As for the past, mindfulness teaches you to accept that what has been done is done and stressing out over it is a waste of time (to be blunt), while attempting to foresee your future is just as useless. After all, your future is, in part, dependent on your actions from moment to moment. The only thing you can actually control is “right now”, so concentrate on that.
Educators are coming around to mindfulness. A 2009 study published by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that for teen between 14 and 18, anxiety and depression were reduced while self-esteem was increased after only an eight-week program. A group of fourth- and fifth-graders participated in a twelve-week mindfulness program and, according to the Journal of Child and Family Studies, they saw a 24% increase in positive social behaviors, a 24% decrease in aggression and a 15% improvement in math scores. They also noted a reduction or prevention of depression-like symptoms and improved classroom behavior, such as self-control, paying attention and respect for others.
The American Psychological Association (APA) touts programs like MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) as effective in reducing or preventing depression by incorporating “mindfulness exercises including yoga, body awareness and daily homework, such as eating or doing household chores, with full attention to what one is doing, moment by moment.” So, mindfulness works for all ages.
The practice can be an effective and proactive measure against potential life-threatening behaviors, but we also need to be proactive in how and when it is practiced. Starting as early in childhood as possible, teaching our children by being their example, or by supporting local schools in any efforts, they seek to create an environment more amenable to learning and less of a pressure cooker. In this case, letting your child learn on their own that fire is hot may actually be a fatal mistake.
People equate mindfulness with meditation for good reason. When I ask someone why they don’t do it, I often hear them say that they either “don’t have the time” or that they “can’t clear their minds”. They’ve tried already, so they say. What they don’t understand is that meditation is an exercise much like any other. If you want to bench press 300 pounds, you need to work at it. Such is meditation. But, that’s not the only choice here. Sitting in silence is only one way to be mindful. Others will sometimes cite yoga or tai chi or some other Eastern method equated with serenity, but that’s too limiting, especially for Western minds. Just like the APA notes, mindfulness can be practiced while doing something as simple as household chores or even eating a meal. All it takes is that you focus on whatever you are doing at that moment and nothing else. Every bite of your cheeseburger, every dish you wash, every weed you pull, every shirt you fold can be an opportunity to be mindful. Hell, every step you take is a chance to focus on the present. Mindfulness can be achieved by doing something as simple as stopping to take a few breaths. One foot in front of the other.
Practicing mindfulness is good for stress and anxiety, but its usefulness can be applied to other areas. Do away with the curse of “multitasking”. If you’re a college student and you have an English paper to write, then write it. Don’t worry about that chapter you need to read for Psychology until you’ve written the last word of that essay. If you’re in Psychology class, be attentive and don’t worry about your History class. For adults, just simply stop sending emails while you’re on that conference call. Focus on one thing at a time. Plus, when you’re called on, you won’t have to think of a dumb excuse for why you didn’t “hear the question.” We all know what you were doing. One foot in front of the other.
Anxiety and stress are real. Very real. And, we need to be conscious of what causes us to feel such pressure especially when we’re talking about our younger generation. We need them to take our places in society, to be productive citizens, both learned and empathetic. We need them to be critical thinkers and activists. So, we need them to be whole and have the resources and faculties to do the great work they aspire to do. In order for them to be the hope of our future, we need them to get through the day and survive. Allowing them to be mindful and present should be our gift to them. And, their gift to us is simply surviving.
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