I cannot remember a time when starting a new year of school or a new semester did not stress me out. There is actually a picture of me on my first day of kindergarten SOBBING because I was so scared to go to class. I would love to go back and tell that kindergarten me that she had it good, but I digress. School has always been synonymous with stress for me. I was determined to challenge that idea before spring semester started, and now that we’re a few weeks in, I have to say – things feel different. I don’t look at my calendar and see a bunch of daunting due dates staring back at me or toss and turn all night thinking about how much work I have to do the next day. I wish I could tell you that I flipped a switch and suddenly I wasn’t stressed, but unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. There were no switches or magic spells, and I don’t think there will ever be a time when I can say I’m not stressed at all. But, I have learned that stress can be managed by being a little more mindful.
I have never been one for the idea of meditating. I’ve never been able to turn my mind off. Sitting in a quiet, dark room and concentrating on my breathing for a half hour sounds traumatic to me. How can anyone think about breathing for that long? But, I was talking to a friend about my outrageous stress levels last semester and she suggested mindfulness meditation. I was about to laugh, because like I said, meditation just didn’t seem like the move for me. But this friend always seemed so calm and collected, so I figured I should have whatever she was having. When I actually took the time to listen to what mindfulness really was, I found that it was pretty simple – and it made sense.
Mindfulness is pretty meta. I am sure there are more professional definitions out there, but to me, it’s really just taking a moment to be more aware of yourself and your position in the world. It’s almost like another sense or a state of mind that, once you’ve practiced, you can tap into whenever you need to. The reason that it’s so great for stress is that it allows you to ground yourself in the present. You know that feeling when you have a research paper and 3 exams and 4 meetings all within the span of a week? Mindfulness allows you to take a step back from that and not get overwhelmed. It’s like a little voice that says, “Sure, you have a lot to do, but you can handle it.” Not everyone’s stress is the same of course, but mine mostly manifests itself in worrying about the future instead of thinking rationally. My mind will spin for hours, coming up with more things to be anxious about. Mindfulness brings me back to reality just long enough for my brain to process everything and come up with a realistic plan of action instead of worrying relentlessly for hours.
The really great thing about meditation and mindfulness, as I’ve learned, is that as long as it works for you, there’s really no way you can do it wrong. I have tried to meditate before, but I would get so hung up on being “good” at it that it never worked for me. The whole idea behind mindfulness is that it can be as simple as taking a deep breath, or closing your eyes, or counting to 10 in a moment of cognitive overload, as long as it brings you back down to earth. That being said, when I was just starting out, I found that guided meditations were really helpful. You can find these anywhere, from YouTube to meditation apps, my favorite is called “Calm.” I think the best way for anyone to start would be to take a few minutes before bed, turn on a guided meditation, and try to turn your brain off for a few minutes. Guided meditations like these are great for me because they don’t require any thinking and they force me to focus on something other than my own thoughts. Instead, I can focus on the guiding voice which is usually enough to bring my brain back to its scheduled programming. Usually, it’s just a matter of focusing on your breath and trying to relax your muscles (you’d be surprised how tense your muscles can be.)
You might be reading this and be thinking “no thanks,” and that’s fine. Meditation isn’t for everyone. However, I used to think it wasn’t for me, and now its something I use nearly everyday to some capacity. I think the biggest misconception people (and myself in the past) have about meditation is that it needs to be done in a certain way. In my opinion, whatever calms you and allows you to center yourself can be considered meditation. You don’t need a dark room with a bunch of candles and Gregorian monks chanting in the background. Just take a few moments to breathe and be present every once and in a while.