From trying microdosing techniques to adopting the wisdom of stoic philosophers, students today are bombarded with popular self-improvement trends from the very moment these touch campus. But instead of convincing you to wake up before dawn, or embrace the idea of a dopamine fast, I will write about the benefits of meditation for students, as they pertain to this important chapter of life. But why is meditation important? Well, let’s find out.
Students are a special breed. They are often malnourished, prone to eating or drinking things that most sane people tend to avoid, and certainly not adequately rested. To be in college usually means to sit long hours during lectures, to study in a curled position, and to mostly avoid any type of physical exercise unless necessary. Coupled with stress from exams, peer pressure, and social dynamics, these factors might jeopardize one’s mental health. So, exactly why is meditation important?
Well, the benefits of meditation for students are numerous, and they extend well beyond the window of deliberate training. People who practice meditation daily notice stress reduction, improved focus, better quality of sleep, greater appreciation, and increased awareness, among other things.
And while other personal development practices like journaling and aerobic exercise could bring about the same results, the benefits of mindfulness meditation permeate all other areas of live, laying the groundwork for a happier, calmer, better focused and grateful mind.
Benefits of meditation for students
College can be a difficult phase of life. Some of you will struggle with macro decisions, the effects of which expand well beyond the 30s and 40s. Others will find the pace of responsibilities to be quite overwhelming. Whatever the hurdle, extra peace of mind and clarity are always appreciated.
The benefits of daily meditation take a while to kick in, but you should feel notable improvements in many areas of live as early as within the first week. What many people fail to realize, is that meditation is a practice for building healthy habits. Every pattern of thought, every response to an emotion, and every reaction to an event is conditioned by our habitual existence. The reason why meditation is important is because it allows you to forgo these patterns, and establish a better framework for interacting with the world, and consequently with yourself.
Benefits of mindfulness meditation
The list of benefits is very long, but few stand out. Conveniently, these can be verified through a method of scientific scrutiny, and there are studies and trials that have either reported promising results, or are about to in the near future.
Reduced stress and anxiety
Randomized control trials conclude that meditation-based stress reduction (a method of mindfulness training popularized by Jon-Kabat Zinn) is effective at lowering stress and anxiety symptoms and could be therefore used as a coping strategy, supplementing traditional treatment.
Increased sense of gratitude
Another study published in Scientific Reports concludes that meditation helps improve regulation of emotion and self-motivation, by a process of modulating resting state functional connections in brain regions associated with these processes.
Improved cognitive skills, i.e. focus
It is somewhat more difficult to measure cognitive improvements, as they relate to a meditation based practice, which serves as an intervention. However, studies have already reported promising results in that area as well. As Anthody Zanesco, the lead author of a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, says:
“This study is the first to offer evidence that intensive and continued meditation practice is associated with enduring improvements in sustained attention and response inhibition, with the potential to alter longitudinal trajectories of cognitive change across a person’s life.”
~Anthony ZanescoZanesco, A.P., King, B.G., MacLean, K.A. et al. (2018). Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement 2, 259–275
Increased emotional intelligence
The scientific benefits of meditation are a lucrative topic, since psychologist can administer well-designed intervention programs to test various hypotheses.
One such is that emotional intelligence and mindfulness are correlated, and working on one can increase the other. This study, published in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology, finds a strong correlation between EI and mindfulness.
Normalized blood pressure
Many studies have been published on this topic, concluding that meditation practice can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and do so continually over time, to a point where healthier level is being achieved.
This is important for students, since staying up late studying, and eating unhealthy or going to parties where there is loads of alcohol involved is known to elevate blood pressure. Not only that meditation acts as a treatment, but it acts preventatively, by helping you build habits that keep your blood pressure low in the future.
Improved quality of sleep
With less stress, and more awareness of your own self, you can learn to let go unhealthy habits such as staying up late watching Netflix, or engaging in any type of addictive behavior.This will help you to relax and fall asleep much easier.
How does meditation work?
So how does meditation fit into this picture? Well, the practice of mindfulness meditation has to do with preparing you to live in the moment. Unburdened by thoughts, less reactive to emotions, and more curious and inquisitive of what is taking place, either internally or externally.
Once you walk this path, and gain somewhat of a traction, you will find your life resembling a simple metaphor. Imagine that the sky is filled with clouds, and above them there is a bright blue sky. That, my friend, is how we all function throughout our lives. Granted, someone might have a less crowded space above their heads, while others are literally struggling to see the crack between the clouds.
Nevertheless, what meditation does, is simply pointing attention to the clouds. It does not try to change them, does not try to alter them in any way. However, such is the nature of imaginary clouds, i.e. thought and emotional reaction patterns that they tend to dissolve the very moment you decide to sit with them while at ease.
Just by being aware of the moment, at whatever comes with it, either externally or internally, you get to experience more of the “blue sky” – a default mode of being, where curiosity, focus, happiness, and calm always coexist.
But how are the effects of meditation achieved? What is the mechanism through which change occurs?
Well, as one study published in the Journal Scientific Reports points out, after a only a short mindfulness meditation training for 40 days, there were overlapping structural and functional effects in a posterior DMN region of the brain, called the precuneus, with increases in cortical thickness and decreases in low-frequency amplitudes.
Similar studies are being published, observing physical alterations in the brain after mindfulness meditation is implemented in various lengths and duration.
So why is meditation important? Well, mostly, it is important because unlike other fads and pop strategies for improvement, it actually has a physical manifestation in the brain, which is measurable. Research methods can be employed to study these changes, and the field of neuroscience is all over it.
Why is meditation so hard?
Ok, everybody gets it, meditation is great, but why is meditation so hard? – I hear you saying.
The simple answer is that we are conditioned to be always in motion. If our body is at rest, our mind takes off and there is never a quiet time for us to be just present with ourselves and the world.
Therefore, closing your eyes and sitting down with whatever occupies the present moment, can be excruciatingly hard for many of us. It takes practice to overcome this hurdle and enjoy a mindfulness meditation session. But don’t worry – you will enjoy many moments even on your first try.
Side effects of meditation
While it is very hard to go wrong with meditation, there are situations in which it makes things worse rather than better.
People who are prone to OCD patterns of behavior and thought, as well as people who tend to overanalyze anything and everything, are usually candidates for mental hurdles once they start meditating.
However, this is mostly the case when meditation sessions last for over half an hour, and are introduced without progression or preparation of any sort.
Therefore, it is important to start slow, meditating only for 5-10 minutes per day. Once you feel comfortable with the practice, and notice an array of benefits, regardless of how small, it is time to try a 15 minute practice.
I personally find it beneficial to meditate for 25 minutes daily, although it took me about 4 years of practice, with the occasional skipped week or month. You will have to find this threshold by yourself.
Otherwise, meditation practice could exacerbate obsessive and compulsive thought patterns. Fun fact – I successfully manage anxiety and mild chronic OCD with a daily practice, when things start to take off for the worse. The “treatment” never fails.
How about the spiritual benefits of meditation?
So what are the spiritual benefits of meditation? And how do these relate to the benefits of meditation for students?
If I have to suppose that you have never meditated, then there is a very high probability that this entire endeavor seems a bit primitive, unscientific and outright ridiculous. In that case, the job of this article is to explain the concept of meditation, as much as it tries to list the health benefits of meditation.
To begin this, I must say that there is nothing unscientific about mindfulness meditation. You can use meditation to lower blood pressure, in a measurable way, through a randomized, double blind experiment; you can use meditation to reduce stress, which is also a measurable phenomenon, and you can use meditation for all of its other scientific benefits.
On the other hand, the health benefits of mindfulness meditation do not exclude the spiritual benefits of meditation. Something can be medically pragmatic, while at the same time being spiritually enriching.
Spirituality is an umbrella term to describe a vast landscape of mystical experiences, and it is therefore equally exploited by charlatans, snake oil salesmen, and other closely related quacks. But all of us have experienced feelings and emotions described as divine, awe inducing, and revelatory. People hold their love ones and proclaim feelings of eternal gratitude, affection and happiness, and others swallow a handful of magic mushrooms and feel one with the world.
These experiences, though anecdotal, are so numerous that it is very hard to dismiss them as part of the weird fringe. In fact, one would argue, they are so potent and life changing, that the value people ascribe to them is quite adequate.
By being present in this moment you get to have a vast array of spiritual experiences – smelling a rose, for example, and feeling as if you are in love with the world, as absurd as that may sounds from an intellectual standpoint.
So, regarding the connection between the benefits of meditation for students, and the spiritual angle of the practice… Students can always benefit from profound emotional experiences, and sense of connection with something greater, be that god, the community, other people, or the world at large.
Numerous options at your disposal
While you can start with meditation on your own, the concept of guided meditation is much better for a beginner. Luckily, you won’t have to go to a special lounge, covered with white sheets from left to right. Meditation apps and courses are available online, and they come structured enough to fit in an app.
Mentors like Andy Puddicombe from Headspace, and Sam Harris from Waking up, could help you discover the joy of meditating, by guiding you through the basics, and helping you explore philosophical yet pragmatic and scientific truths of the mind.
Of course, these apps have a price tag attached, but you can go on YouTube and suit yourself, picking your mentor from a garden variety of videos. My advice, however, is to go with either Headspace or Waking up. And no, I do not run an affiliate promotion on these two, which means that I earn zero dollars from recommending them. I am simply interested in promoting these apps as the most reliable way of achieving the benefits of meditation for students such as yourself.
*The Waking up app by Sam Harris and his team is free if you send them an email stating that you truly cannot afford the subscription. Sam does not want money to be the obstacle for people experiencing the joy of meditation.
So, to conclude, the benefits of meditation for students far outweigh the possible side effects of meditation, and it is definitely worth your while to spend 10-15 minutes per day sitting on the chair, with your eyes closed, doing nothing. The health benefits of meditation will start to pile up exponentially, but you should keep up with the practice at least for a number of weeks. Ideally, it should become part of your life, and a long term habit.