Some may think that university is a time of glorious freedom and fun. While there certainly is the possibility for these, let’s face it – newfound freedom can have its share of difficulties and a unique set of stressors. It can be challenging to try to lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle at a time when structured school bells and nutritious home cooking seem far, far away.
Wellbeing is a buzzword these days, as everyone seems to be looking for balance in a world that often seems stretched and stressed. Positive mental health is essential to overall wellbeing. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” It may seem like a tall order, but wellbeing is, in fact, a skill that can be learned and mindfulness can play a vital role in cultivating the capacity for wellbeing at any age!
There’s a lot of hype these days about mindfulness but it’s not just a flashy trend. Training in mindful awareness can help improve focus, learning and memory, but its long-term benefits can truly make a difference to your overall wellbeing. Mindfulness is about cultivating the ability to be more in tune with your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Understanding these is a key life skill that can enhance our ability to care for ourselves.
One of the important benefits of developing mindful awareness is that we can begin to notice more clearly the way our mind so easily gets distracted. This is a fundamental first step in learning to re-focus a wandering mind, and can help you to stick with the intention of giving your full attention to your studies, or even to your friend!
This sounds simple however in practice it is not necessarily easy, hence the need for a practice in which you just spend a few minutes everyday training the mind, just like you train the body at the gym. Research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can help to manage stress and enhance overall wellbeing.
Silence and stillness
In a busy world it can be hard to find moments of silence and stillness, but even two minutes a day can help create a positive habit of taking time for yourself. Unhooking from the daily pressure of doing, doing, doing to take a few moments to nurture being can be quite nourishing. Use Insight Timer as a way to track these moments of re-charging. When starting to train more specifically in mindful awareness it can be beneficial to use guided practices. Headspace is a great app to start off with and if you are interested in learning more, Finding Peace in a Frantic World is an accessible introduction to mindfulness with short, guided practices and a very useful app.
What the heck, tech?
Our phone and computers are wonderful tools that help keep us connected to others and the world at large. But they can sometimes get in the way of connecting with ourselves. As hard as it may be, help yourself take a tech break every now and then. Get back into the body by stretching – your neck, shoulder and even fingers will thank you for it! Learning to redirect attention into the body over time becomes a healthy way of coming out of over-thinking and distraction when we just need to let go a little and relax. This can even be incorporated into your daily routine, for example on your walk to or from campus - leave your ears free of headphones and listen to all of the sounds around you or bring your attention to the sensations of walking.
A more focussed attention can be brought to other aspects of life as well; whenever we come into the senses during activities like running, dancing, swimming or even brushing our teeth we are taking care of our mental health by allowing ourselves to anchor through the body and let go of the very common pre-occupation of over-thinking and over-stimulation.
Get your Zs along with your ABCs!
It may not always be easy to get enough sleep with funny flatmates or noisy neighbours, but a good night’s rest is a foundation for healthy body and mind. It can be hard to sleep when your mind is full of facts and possibly worries about an upcoming exam – a guided body scan can be a helpful way to ease into sleeping and can be used if you wake up in the middle of the night.
And let’s not forget about the afternoon nap – who said all your sleeping had to be done in the twilight hours? Sometimes the body just needs a rest and a 20 minute ‘cat nap’ can do the trick.
You won’t be the only student sometimes feeling overwhelmed with the busyness of school life! Talk to your friends about ways in which you can support each other to nurture moments of wellness. This may be joining a mindfulness group together, leaving phones in your bags when talking to each other, or even planning for time together in nature.
Mindfulness at UK universities
All universities are interested in student wellbeing and many have recognized the benefits that mindfulness can bring to cultivating a balanced life. Here is a list of universities in the UK that offer mindfulness classes to their students. If you don’t see yours listed, just ask Student Services about where to find local mindfulness services.
We can easily get wrapped up in our thoughts and worries, losing sight of what really matters, which can get in the way of a sustainable approach to living. Reconnecting to core values and finding outlets for de-stressing can help you gain perspective and unhook from the pressures of being a university student in order to find more balance and really enjoy this special time in your life.
By Amy Burke, Co-founder of MindWell Education and Kevin Hawkins, author of Mindful Teacher, Mindful School: Improving wellbeing in teaching and learning.