by Sierra Trudel
“All our knowledge begins with the senses.”
Western society is plagued with the detrimental effects of daily stress. The contemporary lifestyle in the United States, characterized by a 24/7 economy and on-the-go lifestyle, is leaving its citizens with feelings of tension, overwhelming stress, feeling rushed, and restless. These experiences often lead to damaging health effects. Stress can lead to headaches, depleted immune systems, muscle tension and strain, elevated blood pressure, sleep deprivation, burnout, impaired brain functioning, relationship problems, anxiety, depression, digestive problems, and chronic illness; a symptom list most would want to avoid. However, these effects are projected to continue to rise (de Bruin, Formsma, Frijstein, & Bogels, 2017). Of the population experiencing stress, graduate students are among them. Of these students, those training in school counseling or special education are expected to experience high levels of stress during their educational training and throughout their careers. Many students entering these fields are equipped with self-help strategies to help others, yet lack the means to cope and relieve their own stress (Tarrasch, 2015).
Now imagine an activity that is easy to learn and that could alleviate the symptoms of stress in only 10 minutes. That activity is called meditation (Smith, 2014). Kabat-Zinn (2013) describes mindfulness meditation as being present to where you are and allowing you to authentically experience each moment, all the while free from judgment. So often our thoughts become so overpowering that we lose track of the present moment or our minds tend to wander ruminating on the tasks we need to complete. There are infinite reasons why our minds rapidly jump from one thought to another, but through practicing mediation we can learn to be aware of our minds and bodies and elicit necessary change. “In order to release this tension, you first have to know it is there. You have to feel it. Then you have to know how to shut off the automatic pilot and how to take over the controls of your own body and mind” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013, p. 13). Mindfulness meditation often places emphasis on awareness of breathing, surrounding sounds, and bodily sensations. When thoughts or distractions arise awareness is brought back to the breath. Often, in guided mindfulness meditations themes may be assigned for the session, such as compassion, peace, or forgiveness for self and others (Sears & Kraus, 2009). de Bruin, Formsma, Frijstein, and Bogels (2017) eloquently state:
We do not have much control over our life events and inner turmoil, but we do have control over how we relate to it. Mindfulness will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us to respond to them in a more deliberate and calm manner that benefits our mind and body, as well as our relationships with others (pp. 205).
Mindfulness meditation intervention studies have demonstrated significant health benefits (e.g. treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and immune functioning), positive impacts on affect (e.g. increased self-compassion, overall well-being, and adaptive emotional regulation; de Bruin, Formsma, Frijsten, & Bogels, 2017; Menezes, C. B. & Bizarro, L., 2015; Sears & Kraus, 2009), changes in brain development (e.g. strengthens connections within the brain that enhance perspective and understanding; Smith, 2014) and benefits those in higher education (e.g. better test performance, increased concentration, and overall better cognitive performance; Tarrasch, 2015; Menezes, C. B. & Bizarro, L., 2015). Tarrasch (2015) noted additional significant benefits for graduate students, specifically those in counseling and special education programs. These benefits include: increased calmness, concentration, sleep, and awareness of thoughts, actions, and sensations; decreased anxiety and rumination; indicating positive effects in cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal domains. The culmination of these effects lead to an overall improved quality of life and the ability to balance their academic, professional, and personal lives.
Your senses are a powerful tool that can be used to quickly ground yourself to the present when you only have a moment. As students, the demands we face daily can often leave us feeling overwhelmed and stressed. The goal of the following exercise is to notice something that you are currently experiencing through each of your senses.
- What are 5 things you can see? Look around you and notice 5 things you hadn’t noticed before. Maybe a pattern on a wall, rays of light shining through a window, or the facial expressions of others around you.
- What are 4 things you can feel? Maybe you can feel your jaw clenching or the space between your eyes tightening, your hair resting on your shoulders, or a breeze on your skin. Try picking up an object and notice its texture and weight.
- What are 3 things you can hear? Notice all the background sounds of your surrounding. Can you hear people typing, is there music, or what does the silence sound like?
- What are 2 things you can smell? Take a slow, deep breath in. Maybe you can smell coffee brewing, a neighbors perfume, or food in the microwave. It doesn’t have to be a nice smell either, maybe there’s a trash can nearby or the air is stagnant and still.
- What is 1 thing you can taste? Move your tongue around in your mouth. Simply notice how your mouth tastes. Or, try taking a bite of chocolate or popping a piece of gum in your mouth. You can also “taste” the air to see how it feels on your tongue.
The suggestions listed above are meant to act as a guideline only. Feel free to do more or less of each. Also, try this exercise while doing an activity like washing dishes, listening to music, or going for a walk.
de Bruin, E. I., Formsma, A. R., Frijstein, G., & Bogels, S. M. (2017). Mindful2Work: Effects of combined physical exercise, yoga, and mindfulness medications for stress relieve in employees. A proof of concept study. Mindfulness, 8,204-217. doi: 10.1007/s12671-016-0593-x
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York: Bantam Books.
Menezes, C. B. & Bizarro, L. (2015). Effects of a brief meditation training on negative affect, trait anxiety and concentrated attention. Paidéia, 25(62), 393-401. doi: 10.1590/1982- 43272562201513
Sears. S. & Kraus, S. (2009). I think therefore I om: Cognitive distortions and coping style as mediators for the effects of mindfulness meditation and anxiety, positive and negative affect, and hope. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 561-573. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20543
Smith, O. (2014, Spring). 10 minutes of bliss. Montessori life, 48-50.
Tarrasch, R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation training for graduate students in educational counseling and special education: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Child Family Studies, 24,1322-1333. doi: 10.1007/s10826-014-9939-y