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Mindfulness for students: The secret to student wellbeing?

Students across all grade levels and age groups are experiencing similar rises in anxiety and depression to 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’re already out of steam. 

So why are kids struggling now more than ever, and what can be done about it? 

In this guide, we’re going to cover all the factors that contribute to anxiety and depression in students, as well as how mindfulness could be the solution to help improve mental health and promote healthy learning and lifestyles.

First, we’ve summarized all our findings into this fun infographic.

Infographic: Is mindfulness the secret to student wellbeing?

mindfulness for students infographic

The facts behind mental health in students

According to a study conducted by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, a worrying 80% of U.S. students report feeling stressed sometimes or often, while 34% experienced feelings of depression.

The Rising Hope clinic has found that a concerning 1 in 6 youth between the ages of 6 and 17 experienced a mental health condition during 2020. We can surmise that the pandemic didn’t help this figure. 

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.

The statistics are worrying. Schools across the world are trying to implement strategies to help students cope, but to do so we must first understand the root causes of the problem, starting first with anxiety:

The effects of anxiety on students

One of the problems 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, which may be harder to identify.

Here are some problems and symptoms students might experience when 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.”

But to understand where this anxiety stems from, we have to consider another dangerously important factor – stress. 

What is stress and how does it affect students?

Before we go into the reasons why anxiety is on the rise in students, we’ve got to understand the role stress plays with anxiety. The two go hand in hand, and whilst a little stress is normal, high levels can affect your health. 

Stress is a psychological reaction that happens in your body when you’re faced with a challenge or difficult situation. 

Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, which initiate the fight or flight response. This is responsible for making you either run away from a situation or stay to fight it.

If you become overloaded with stress, you might experience:

➥ Moodiness and irritability

➥ Memory problems

➥ Negative thoughts

➥ Diarrhea/constipation

➥ Dizziness/sickness

➥ A lack of concentration

These are just some of the reactions you might experience when stressed for prolonged periods. 

There are different types of stress, too:

Acute Stress

Acute stress is fairly normal and we experience it daily. It’s short-term, so it only lasts for the duration of the event. For example, sitting in traffic when you’re late for an appointment would be an example of acute stress. It’s not all bad though — acute stress sharpens focus and helps us to be productive so we can overcome the stressful situation.

Episodic Acute Stress

This type of stress is like acute stress, but it happens regularly. For example, if you take on too many projects at one time, you might feel like you’re overwhelmed with the amount of responsibility you have. This can make you feel rushed, panicked and tense all the time. If it goes for too long, it can result in migraines and even heart disease.

Chronic Acute Stress

This is when you live in a state of stress. Having a toxic home environment, being extremely unhappy with your studies or course, staying in miserable relationships, all these factors create chronic stress which drains your body and leaves you feeling hopeless. This is the most serious of the three and can contribute to certain cancers, depression and heart issues.

So now we know what the different types of stress are, let’s have a look at the symptoms so you can determine whether stress levels are normal or sky-high:

EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS

  • Feeling depressed or unhappy often
  • No desire to socialize
  • Feeling restless
  • Often feeling overwhelmed
  • Having a negative, pessimistic attitude
  • Less patience
  • More irritable
  • Feeling lonely

PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS

  • Little or no libido
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Weak immune system
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling run-down
  • Weight changes
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Missed or irregular periods
  • Chest pains
  • Indigestion

BEHAVIORAL SYMPTOMS

  • Changes in school performance
  • Changes in eating and sleeping
  • Struggling with social interactions
  • Desire to be isolated
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • Avoiding responsibility
  • Nail biting

COGNITIVE SYMPTOMS

  • Impaired judgment
  • Negative/unwanted thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory impairment
  • Issues with speech (like stuttering)
  • Anxious thoughts

Stress in small doses is good for us. Without it, we wouldn’t meet deadlines or achieve goals. It’s needed to give us a boost when we’re lacking in motivation or energy.

But when stress goes ignored daily or becomes episodic or chronic acute stress, it can affect life negatively. As well as harming health, it’ll distract from studying, and can seep into social interactions causing tension with family and friends. 

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.

This can cause a lot of frustration, as well as pressure to do something about 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. 

And on top of all of that, one study has revealed that 60% of young people use their phones before sleeping, resulting in one hour less sleep every night compared to those who don’t use technology at night.

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 daily.

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 have made a huge impact on the overall mental health of older students and young adults today.

Also known as financial anxiety, student debt is 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 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 negative self-talk
  • Have high expectations brought on by themselves, parents, and teachers
  • Feel uncomfortable with certain tests (such as impromptu or timed tests)
  • Fear being seen as a failure by peers 
  • Fear the consequences (poor grades might mean missing out on a college of their choice, for example)

Mindfulness: The ultimate tool for decreasing anxiety in students

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

The research behind mindfulness

Research has shown mindfulness can improve several physical and psychological areas, with a study into neuroscience revealing that:

“Mindfulness practices dampen activity in our amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it.”

Other studies have shown how mindfulness can help students with Asperger Syndrome – they noted that using mindful practices decreased the level of aggression in adolescents with the condition.

And for students with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), one study where students practiced mindfulness daily, with a gradual increase, showed higher levels of concentration and a decrease in anxiety and depression. 

Finally, the American Psychology Association has found numerous links between mindfulness and stress reduction, working memory, emotional regulation, relationship satisfaction, and increased focus. 

The two types of mindfulness

Although mindfulness can be applied to any situation, at any time, there are two ways of doing it:

Formal mindfulness

This involves using meditation to practice mindfulness. You can have students sit down and focus on their breathing. Bring their attention gently to their bodies and emotions and let them observe themselves whilst being still and calm.

This might be done for an amount of time, five minutes before a lesson and you can use music or a relaxing timer to keep track of time.

Informal mindfulness

Informal mindfulness happens when you engage with mindfulness whilst doing other activities. Students might be coloring, brainstorming ideas, or even playing, but they can still check in with themselves, perform a body scan and refocus on the activity at hand.

It’s important to introduce both to students — you can incorporate them into lessons (which we’ll cover below) so that young adults and children adopt them seamlessly into their habits and routines.

The lasting effectiveness of mindfulness for students and teachers

Mindfulness is an excellent tool for any age, but for students in particular it can be a powerful way to help them navigate stress and anxiety. Here are a few reasons why:

※ With so many stressors attacking students from all sides, it can feel like an impossible task helping them overcome each and every problem. Mindfulness helps them detach and process these issues.
※ Some 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. It’s important for them to have a mechanism to cope.
※ Stressors simply can’t be “turned off”; they are a part of reality that students need to accept.
※ Mindfulness helps students deal with their anxiety and equips them with the tools to properly navigate through these issues without losing their sense of self.

The best part is, when a student knows how to practice mindfulness, they can use it throughout their daily activities. 

This gives them a tool that’ll stay with them for life, and by practicing it during their crucial years of studying, they’ll form healthier habits and be better prepared when they face stress and anxiety in the workplace as adults. 

And for teachers, the benefits are immense:

  • Better behavior 
  • More focus during lesson time 
  • Students become more resilient (something every teacher hopes to encourage)
  • More empathy between students (less friction and bullying)
  • Better memory and cognitive function leading to better learners

Disruptive behavior can severely harm the learning of the rest of the class, not to mention the emotional state of the child lashing out. 

But when mindfulness is introduced and practiced daily, over time you’ll notice a significant behavior change – making it easier to teach and manage the classroom. 

3 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 feelings but to acknowledge them, manage them, and respond more appropriately.

Self-awareness

It can be so easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially when it comes to endless arguments and fighting 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:

Grade

The Main Issues

Mindfulness Strategies

K-2

  • 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
  • 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

3-5

  • 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
  • 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

6-8

  • 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
  • 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

9-12

  • 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 desires and passions and separating those from the thoughts and wants of others
  • Focus on bonding and connecting with others with complete authenticity
  • Gaining a greater understanding of 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

Higher Education

  • 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 long-term prejudices and beliefs and tackling those you don’t need
  • 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 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 are 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. This video on mindful breathing meditation will help you get started.

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. 

To get students in the habit of practicing this exercise, take a look at this video which explains the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise. 

3. Self-comparison 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. Self-compassion comes in different forms, and this informative video will give you 6 mindful tips.

4. Mood generation in others

People need to learn to understand not only their 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 journey towards becoming a more mindful individual. This video will give some handy insights on how to get started with a mindfulness journal.

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 about your immediate environment. Check out this 3-minute body scan meditation.

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 tips for the classroom

One of the easiest ways to encourage mindfulness in students is to ensure their environment accommodates it. Whilst mindfulness can be practiced during any type of activity, in or out of the classroom, having space where students feel calm and relaxed is a great starting point.

Some ways that you can create mindfulness in the classroom include:

By creating a calm environment in the classroom, students will find it easier to engage with mindfulness.

These small adjustments, like ensuring there’s a sensory box for young students to engage with, or using immersive techniques to draw their attention in at the start of a new topic, will help them practice mindfulness – even if they don’t realize it!

Most importantly, if mindfulness is integrated into the classroom and becomes a daily habit, students will begin to adopt the methods and use them outside of school and in other areas of their lives.

If you’d like to download some free mindfulness worksheets, this website, Mindfulness Exercises offers a great range to suit both adults and children. 

You can also check out Waterford.org, where you’ll have access to 51 games to incorporate mindfulness into the classroom for kids.

When is a good time for students to practice mindfulness?

The great thing about mindfulness is that once a student is comfortable and practiced in it, they can use it whenever they want. 

But for teachers who want to know how to integrate it into the classroom without it interfering with lessons, here are the most effective times to use mindfulness:

※ At the start of a lesson – this will calm students down and clear their minds from the previous activity they were doing so they can focus on the lesson ahead
※ Before a test – mindfulness can help them relax and overcome any stress or anxiety they feel over the exam
※ During class transitions – especially for younger students, this break in between can help them re-engage with the lesson
※ After recess and lunch – this creates a separation from whatever has happened outside the classroom
※ Before any type of event where students will be required to concentrate for some time, ie, if you have a guest speaker or workshop commencing

In addition to doing whole-class mindfulness, many teachers find it beneficial to take small groups at a time and engage them in a mindfulness activity. 

Students who are more anxious than others, or who have a difficult home life or struggle at school can take part in these mini-breaks to reset and reconnect so they stay engaged at school for longer.

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 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.

And by practicing mindfulness daily, you can begin to create a lifestyle where learning isn’t a chore, emotions aren’t scary, and life can be lived in the moment rather than lost in the haze of stress and anxiety.

FAQs on mindfulness for students

How often should mindfulness be practiced?

As with anything, if you want students to adopt mindfulness as a part of their daily lifestyle, they should get into the habit of doing it as often as possible. For a few minutes, a day is ideal, but even if they practice it weekly, it’s a good start. The end goal is to equip students so that they can apply mindfulness to any task or situation they’re in.

How can students be motivated to practice mindfulness?

Mindfulness shouldn’t feel like a chore. Finding fun ways to incorporate it into everyday life is the key to keeping students motivated and engaged in it. For younger students, you might encourage them with charts so they can keep a record of how well they practice mindfulness throughout the week. 

For older students, it’s a case of explaining the benefits of mindfulness and reassuring them that it doesn’t take time away from their activities, but it will make a world of difference to their stress levels.

What to do if a student struggles to engage with mindfulness?

Generally, mindfulness can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to see the benefits, so it’s a long-term commitment. If a student wants to practice it but finds it difficult to engage with, advise them to take a step back.

A common reason people struggle with mindfulness is putting too much pressure on themselves and overthinking it. In this case, they should start slow, and create a routine with a gradual increase until they feel more comfortable. Instead of attempting five minutes a day, scale it down to two and build up.

Does music help with mindfulness?

Yes, some people find music can enhance their state of mindfulness and keep them focused on the present. It depends on each individual, according to their taste in music, but any type of relaxing music (like instrumentals) can help you get into the zone. 

Is mindfulness the same as meditation?

Mindfulness is a form of meditation; meditation helps you focus on your awareness, emotional balance, and calmness. The main difference is meditation is usually practiced sitting down for a specific length of time.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be done anywhere, at any time. Whether you’re washing the dishes or marking papers, you can use mindfulness to actively engage with the present moment. 

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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 15 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 Facebook or Twitter.

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