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Mindfulness for students: The secret to student wellbeing?

Peer pressure, test anxiety, global problems, social media overload, cyber bullying – the list of challenges affecting students out of the classroom today is longer than it has ever been.

And with rates of anxiety and depression rising in students all around the world, students need more help than ever in learning how to cope with their realities.

Mindfulness is the answer that can help even the most overburdened student live more peacefully and presently.

In this article, we explain the need for mindfulness learning in students of all ages, and the best ways for beginners to take their first steps into understanding and practicing real mindfulness.

The Modern Epidemic of Anxiety and Depression Amongst Students

Students across all grade levels and age groups are experiencing similar rises in anxiety and depression than previous generations.

Kids as young as 4 and 5 years old already begin experiencing pressure and anxiety, and by the time they get to high school and college they are already out of steam. 

According to a recent Pew survey, about 70% of teens claim that depression and anxiety are major problems they see every day, with another 26% categorizing them as minor problems.

And according to the National College Health Assessment, the number of college students who reported “overwhelming anxiety” was up 50% in 2016 from 2011.

Perhaps the most shocking numbers indicating the rise of the mental health crisis amongst young adults is the increase in suicide and suicidal thoughts – feelings of sadness and suicidal thoughts doubled amongst young people from 2008 to 2017.

In 2019, suicides amongst US youth had reached a 20-year high.

But one problem students face when dealing with anxiety and stress is the lack of guidance in handling and identifying it.

Anxiety and stress don’t always lead to mental breakdowns, and instead can manifest in lesser yet still significant ways.

Here are some problems and symptoms you might be experiencing as a student dealing with overwhelming anxiety: 

  • Failing to eat right and stay healthy
  • Failing to keep up with your family or friends
  • Failing to manage money properly
  • Feelings of disorganization and being overwhelmed
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Procrastinating too much or wasting time
  • Letting problems in your relationship go unresolved
  • Failing to study or read properly
  • Homesickness (if away from home)

And more and more students are experiencing these issues every year, in the US and around the world.

According to professor of psychology Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at the University of Southern California, recent studies into student anxiety are “quite a wake-up call. These findings are coming together with other kinds of evidence that show we’re not supporting our adolescents in developmentally appropriate ways.”

Main Challenges Facing Students Today 

So why exactly is there so much more anxiety amongst students of all age groups today?

There is no one answer for this, and the problem can be found by investigating the most pressing concerns that students have to deal with.

Some of the major problems stressing students out include: 

Eco-Anxiety

Eco-anxiety, also known as climate depression, is a growing condition of anxiety caused by fears and worries related to climate change.

Young people today have grown up with the reality of climate change and the fear that not enough is being done to stop or reverse it.

According to one 18-year-old student from Alabama, she feels that climate change had become an inevitable part of her life.

“I feel like in my peer group, you just go right from talking about polar bears dying to ‘Did you see what Maya posted on Snapchat?’ Nobody has a filter to adjust. It’s like, the ice caps are melting and my hypothetical children will never see them, but I also have a calculus test tomorrow.” 

More psychiatrists are observing climate-related anxiety amongst students, although it can be difficult to identify climate change as the cause since it’s a shared problem rather than a personal one. 

Social Media

Social media has fundamentally changed the way people interact with each other, and for kids and young adults who have only ever known a world with social media, this leads to consequences that previous generations never had to deal with.

Countless studies have found links between social media use/screen time and anxiety; the more screen time a young person has, the more likely they are to have higher anxiety than those around them. 

But what is it about social media that leads to anxiety?

Everything from cyberbullying (which is rampant amongst students, as anonymity and faceless interactions make it easier for them to say things they would never say in real life) to comparing yourself against the social media highlights of your peers.

These upward comparisons to others can make students feel small and inadequate. 

But the answer isn’t as simple as removing social media from their life cold turkey.

Amongst heavy users, this can also increase anxiety because of a phenomenon known as FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out.

Students who also engage heavily on social media are also more likely to have higher levels of alcohol consumption, which further increases anxiety and depression. 

Information Overload

Another modern problem previous generations never faced is information overload, or the overwhelming feeling of being bombarded with too much information, data, and news on a daily basis. 

And in the world of smartphones and wireless internet, students are forced to deal with more information than ever before.

For many young people, this information overload comes before their brains are fully developed and capable of processing everything without being overly stressed out or affected.

Information overload is also connected to distraction issues present in many students today, as they develop problems with focusing and concentrating due to endless stimulation. 

Student Debt 

Student debt and financial distress has made a huge impact on the overall mental health of older students and young adults today.

Also known as financial anxiety, student debt has been found to be a major aggravator of stress and anxiety amongst students in their 20s and 30s.

This stress is greatest as students are about to graduate, as the pressure comes from knowing they have to start paying off the debt but also knowing they are entering a weak job market.

According to Dr. Galen Buckwalter, “A lot of the pressure comes from where you started, thought-wise, where college is concerned.

Many people begin college and the openness of their personality changes, as everything feels suddenly possible.

“But the reality is that the expectations on all levels are really rigid and the stress comes from the abrupt shift, after several years in college where the world feels very welcoming to suddenly realizing that one needs to find the correct path, all with financial stress.” 

Testing Anxiety

Testing anxiety or test anxiety affects around 10 million students in North America, with around 16 to 20% of students experiencing high test anxiety and another 18% dealing with moderate test anxiety.

The pressure to succeed as a student is now greater than ever, with standardized, high-pressure tests coming into students’ lives at earlier ages.

Students with test anxiety fear their negative self-talk, grades as a reflection of their value, high expectations brought on by themselves or by parents and teachers, and the overall lack of control when dealing with tests they aren’t comfortable with, such as timed tests or impromptu tests. 

Mindfulness: What Is Mindfulness and How Can It Help Students?

With so many stressors attacking students from all sides, it can feel like an impossible task helping them overcome each and every problem. 

The issue is that these stressors can’t be easily solved; problems like climate change, social media information overload, and cyberbullying are long-term issues that affect all areas of their life.

They simply can’t be “turned off”; they are a part of reality that students need to accept. 

Helping students deal with their anxiety means equipping them with the tools to properly navigate through these issues without losing their sense of self. And the best tool to do that is mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the Ultimate Student Tool for Decreasing Anxiety

What is mindfulness, and how can it ease student anxiety?

Perhaps the clearest definition of mindfulness is “the maintaining of moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment.” 

Learning and practicing mindfulness means learning and practicing acceptance, and exercising our ability to accept and be at peace with the world we live in.

In many ways, mindfulness is the opposite of how modern culture teaches us to live – where modern culture would demand our quick and immediate attention for every issue, mindfulness teaches you to detach from the fleeting and care more about the overall.

The best way to think of mindfulness is to think of the mind as a muscle. Muscles need to be exercised and trained so that they can handle more. The more you actively use your muscles, the more they expand and the stronger they become.

The same is true with the mind – by actively engaging with your mind, your capacity to think and handle your issues increases, and the anxiety of feeling overburdened decreases. The overall benefits of mindfulness include: 

Psychological benefits:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased happiness
  • Increased emotional stability
  • Increased coping strategies
  • Improved memory and retention
  • Improved problem management skills
  • Decreased depression
  • Decreased anxiety

Physical benefits: 

  • Improved sleep
  • Improved immune function
  • Improved circulation
  • Improved breathing
  • Reduced physical responses to stress
  • Lower heart rate

Three Positive Transformations Students Can Learn with Mindfulness

Mindfulness is more than just meditation or mental exercises, and its benefits extend beyond finding your inner peace and learning how to stay calm.

Mindfulness is reflection, a practice that trains the mind to pay attention to the present and learning how to soak and observe the present moment without letting your internal biases or judgments cloud your thoughts.

On the subject of mindfulness in the classroom, researchers have found that just eight weeks of mindfulness training for students is enough to positively transform their brain in the following ways:

  • Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness is all about changing the way your mind reads and responds to the world. It’s about learning that while we can’t always change the problems stressing us out in the world, we can change the way our mind digests and reacts to those problems. The goal isn’t to suppress your own feelings but to acknowledge your feelings, manage them, and respond in the more appropriate way.
  • Self-Awareness: It can be so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially when it comes to the endless arguments and fighting happening on social media. Mindfulness teaches students the skill of self-awareness, making them more aware of what they are doing, what they are thinking, and what they look like. This awareness increases our level of control, because instead of letting the current drag us down the stream, we become capable of resisting those urges and responding more healthily.
  • Attention Control: Attention deficit disorders are a growing condition amongst students, with both diagnosed and undiagnosed conditions rapidly increasing over the last few years. Learning how to pay attention and focus is vital in a student’s academic life, and with mindfulness students regain this lost ability.

Mindfulness Across Student Age Groups

Regardless of age, all students can experience the benefits of learning and practicing mindfulness. Here are the areas mindfulness focuses on at different grades and ages:

Grades K-2

Main Issues 

  • Dealing with first encounters with complex and strange emotions
  • Understanding the self and the need to improve the self as a separate unit from the rest of the world
  • Figuring out the meaning of the mind and practicing discipline

Mindfulness Strategies

  • Focus on establishing empathy, attention, and self-regulation
  • Mindfulness practices are taught through experiential lessons such as stories and games
  • Lessons are shorter and more focused on fun, using body movements to emphasize ideas
  • Students are asked to share what they feel 

Grades 3-5

Main Issues

  • Understanding the size of the world and all the problems and issues going on, and learning how to cope with that
  • Being seriously tested and taking studies and learning seriously
  • Further discovering who the “self” is and developing mental practices for personal reflection 

Mindfulness Strategies

  • Further focus on emotional regulation and empathy
  • Learning how to develop tools that help with stressors and negative thoughts
  • Promoting the ideals of reflection and meditation
  • Talking about sharing your thoughts and why you feel those thoughts

Grades 6-8

Main Issues

  • Social media, cyberbullying, and issues with the family
  • Dealing with “real” problems for the first time – rejection, failure, shame – and coping with them
  • Understanding that the world isn’t in your control or the control of your parents

Mindfulness Strategies

  • Understanding emotions and thoughts, and how these can be influenced by the world
  • Exercising compassion and awareness instead of relying on judgments and assumptions
  • Learning how to deal with negative thoughts and events and how to handle them without getting swept away
  • Learning the importance of dialogue and listening to those you don’t agree with

Grades 9-12

Main Issues 

  • Dealing with the stress of young adulthood and preparing for the future
  • Test anxiety and peer pressure; information overload from social media
  • Figuring out your own desires and passions and separating those from the thoughts and wants of others

Mindfulness Strategies

  • Focus on bonding and connecting with others with complete authenticity
  • Gaining greater understanding on the reasons and motivations of others before responding to them
  • Using mindfulness journals to maximize introspection and personal reflection
  • Teaching students to initiate mindfulness in all areas of life, even those not discussed in the lessons 

Tertiary and Beyond

Main Issues 

  • Juggling the personal responsibilities and stressors of adulthood with the greater responsibilities and stressors imposed by the world
  • Coming to terms with your adult life and accepting who you are
  • Settling into your own long-term prejudices and beliefs and tackling those you don’t need 

Mindfulness Strategies

  • Keeping mindfulness strategies and practices going while learning to navigate the responsibilities of adult life
  • Using mindfulness practices to help the community and those around you
  • Studying any personal long-term beliefs and assessing whether they are still in your best mental health interest
  • Accepting your own limitations and learning to live in peace with your capabilities

10 Mindfulness Strategies and Practices for Students 

Below we’ve listed 10 unique and fun mindfulness strategies and practices for students who are just beginning to understand what mindfulness is and what it represents.

These practices can be used by students of all levels, and anyone who is exploring mindfulness for the first time.

1) Breathing Awareness

Breathing exercises is one of the core practices of mindfulness learning. Concentrate on your natural breathing – no changes, no manipulation, and no thoughts beyond the length, duration, and deepness of your breaths.

Notice the way your body moves as your breath comes in and leaves you.

2) Five Senses Exercise

During meditation and breathing, ask yourself to focus on each of your five senses one by one. What do you truly see, hear, smell, feel, and taste? This practice can be done at any time while doing any activity.

3) Self-Compassion Practice

Learn to be compassionate for yourself. Practice acceptance, love, and kindness for everything you like about yourself; and for everything you don’t like, learn how to accept that it is all a part of you.

4) Mood Generation In Others

It is important for people to learn to understand not only their own moods, but the moods they generate in others with their actions and behaviors. Students should practice reflecting on how their decisions influenced the moods of those around them.

5) Mindfulness Journal

Students should keep a journal with their reflections on all their mindfulness activities. This is a great way to keep track of your personal journey towards becoming a more mindful individual.

6) Assessing VS Judging

Assessing and judging are two branches of the same tree – thinking about and assigning traits to a person or a thing. Students must understand the differences between judging and assessing, and how to separate their biases from their observations to turn judgments into assessments.

7) Body Scan Meditation

The body scan meditation is an easy beginner meditation practice that involves stopping whatever you are doing for a few minutes and scanning your own body. Truly think about what you’re feeling, how each part of you is feeling, and how you feel in relation to your immediate environment.

8) Finding Silver Linings

Mindfulness is as much about internal reflection and meditation as it is about observation.

When students experience negative experiences, it helps to encourage them to always try to find the silver linings.

This teaches both positive thinking and finding new ways to look at existing situations.

9) Mindful Observations

Mindful observations are observations that go beyond the surface level and the obvious.

In any kind of activity, whether a nature walk or a field trip, ask students to stop, think, and observe the world around them.

Teach them to assess and study their surroundings and find details they wouldn’t normally see.

10) Muscle Discovery

Muscle discovery is similar to body scan meditation, but instead of pausing and reflecting on the way your body feels, muscle discovery involves moving your muscles one at a time, and examining each muscle closely.

Flex it, test its range, question it – get to know the muscles that make up your body. 

Mindfulness for Students – Teaching Students Their First Lessons for Life

Being a student may be harder today than it has ever been, with mental challenges coming at you from every side.

This is why it is so important for students to properly embrace mindfulness for what it is – an exercise of mentality and a practice of your own mental strength.

Whether you are a teacher or parent looking to teach mindfulness to your students or kids, or a student looking for help with understanding mindfulness, remember: learning and practicing mindfulness is a lifelong endeavor. 

Lessons don’t end simply because you’ve made it to the end of the course or class. Truly being mindful means allowing yourself to change permanently, and accepting that your mind requires care and maintenance to stay healthy.

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Lachlan Brown

Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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