Mind-full or Mindful?

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Photograph: Ian Meeks

There’s a strange tension permeating through campus. Periodically, students can be seen emerging from the cave of despair that is the library, cowered over and stiff-limbed, squinting as their eyes adjust to the natural sunlight, clutching dissertations close to their chests and snarling at passers-by like a mother protecting her young, before scuttling off to their department to take an obligatory ‘dissertation submitted’ selfie. Exam period is also now well underway and each student is carrying above them their own personal cloud of impending doom. The further away people walk from the library, the tighter the cord of tension is pulled, and any minute now, someone is going to snap.

Students aren’t renowned for being kind to their bodies, and while there is a push to drink responsibly and eat well during exams, we often forget to give our overworked brains some TLC, and as a result, we are in a permanent state of stress. Brain scans of stressed individuals have shown that the part of the brain that is active when under stress is the same part that evolved to be active when escaping from predators. Stress is, essentially, a big sabre-toothed tiger from which we are permanently running – through being incessantly busy – as it threatens to rip us limb from limb.

Mindfulness is a term I’ve heard bandied about a lot, yet until recently I had no idea what it meant. It is a term which refers to a sense of self awareness achieved through making ourselves consciously aware of the activities we are undertaking at the time we are doing them. A simple way to develop a sense of mindfulness may be to carry out part of your routine in a new way, perhaps revising in a new space to make you more aware of your surroundings. An expert in the field, Mark Williams – Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University – suggests sitting back and observing your thoughts objectively. In doing this, we can develop an understanding of our concerns as simply thoughts, rather than a controlling reality. It has been suggested that naming these thoughts in moments of reflection is one step towards rationalising them.  For example, ‘this is the worry that I will miss the bus to my exam, arrive late, forget everything I have revised, vomit on my paper, fail the year, and have to transfer to UCUM’, or ‘this is the thought that we may be subjected to another 5 years of David Cameron’s freshly polished forehead’. Meditation is another key way to become mindful, sitting silently and making yourself aware of your own being, through focussing solely on breathing or other bodily sensations.

Despite vowing that, as an adult, I would never run anywhere unless after an ice cream van or away from the police, I recently tried to take up running as a way of escaping stress. Instead, I found that I was merely diverting my stress through running, instead of reviewing my anxieties. I realised that stress is inescapable, and rather than facing my worries, my running was generating more concerns: ‘am I going to be shouted at by a group of pre-pubescent walking snapbacks today?’, ‘why am I not getting any faster?’, ‘is this octogenarian on a mobility scooter going to overtake me as I lollop through town?’. One way in which I attempted to overcome this was to slowly walk my regular running route, paying conscious attention to my surroundings, and making myself aware of my position within them. I noticed flowers, trees, buildings, and skylines I had never seen before despite passing them daily, and was able to establish what was actually making me stressed, rather than being overcome by it.

So take care of yourselves during exam period. Don’t become engulfed in your stress, and try to rationalise your thoughts by paying them conscious attention.  Then, hopefully, you can transform your perception of yourself and your life, and approach your exams with a more positive mindset. All together now: ‘ommmmmmmm’.

Lancaster University is running an 8 week mindfulness course with weekly 2 hour sessions which started on 22nd April.