In the middle of balancing rigorous coursework with various extracurricular activities and a social life, giving importance to and dedicating time to mental health can be difficult for some college students. To help students maintain a healthy mental outlook, the University supports meditation and mindfulness through various resources such as the Contemplative Sciences Center, Counseling and Psychological Services and the School of Medicine, which offer different courses and programs in these areas. These practices are intended to help students improve both their mental and physical health.
Sheena Kachru, third-year College student majoring in cognitive science, and third-year Engineering student Neha Kulkarni host drop-in meditation sessions that usually last anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at libraries such as Clark Hall and Clemons Library during the school year. Kachru practices a particular form of meditation called heartfulness meditation, where practicers gently bring attention to the heart rather than focusing on surroundings or the mind. These meetings function as study breaks for these students, especially since they are held at libraries.
“Usually, a destressor seems to be a night out,” Kachru said. “But it’s also nice to take a moment, sit back and get in tune with yourself and your emotions and just see where you’re at. Until you take account of how you’re feeling, you can’t really move on and it clouds your judgement.”
According to Jeff Jennings, a staff psychologist at CAPS in Student Health, meditation helps individuals stay more in tune with the present and be less reactive to the scenarios that take place in everyday life.
Data Science graduate student Charisma Ravoori attends these classes on Sundays at Clemons Library. According to Ravoori, meditation helps with focus and helps her stay calm during stressful scenarios.
“It teaches you not to react immediately and take a minute to think about what’s going on and process that,” said Ravoori.
Another resource that supports meditation and mindfulness initiatives at the University is CAPS. Jennings said CAPS provides weekly mindfulness group sessions on Fridays and integrates mindfulness into several of its groups, such as Hoos Stress Less, Dialectical Behavior Theory-based skills group, CHOICES group and the ENHANCE group. For instance, Jennings uses mindfulness based interventions with students where they practice meditation and mindfulness using various apps and online resources in ENHANCE, which is a program designed to improve well-being.
Jennings coordinates wellbeing and resilience programs at CAPS which hosts various programs, such as an exercise referral program with IM-Rec Sports and a group called ENHANCE. According to Jennings, ENHANCE is an “empirically supported program to increase positive emotions and general well being”.
In addition to the Contemplative Sciences Center and CAPS, the School of Medicine also supports meditation through the U.Va. Mindfulness Center. This center offers a number of classes and programs to help individuals develop a consistent meditation practice, such as the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Jennings said that consistent mindfulness practice has a number of psychological and physiological benefits for both students and adults.
“It can include greater resilience to stress, increased attention, enhanced problem solving abilities, reduction in anxiety and depression, improved relationship quality, decreased blood pressure, improved immune response and increases in compassion,” Jennings said.
There is a biological explanation behind how meditation causes stress relief. According to Jennings, meditation reduces the body’s inflammatory response to psychological stressors. It primarily increases the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, lessening the response of the amygdala. The amygdala is located deep within in the brain and is responsible for the processing of emotions while the prefrontal cortex is located at the front of the brain and responsible for decision making. This effectively dampens our fight-or-flight response and helps us respond to stress in more productive and thoughtful ways rather than being impulsive and reactive. According to Jennings, there are actual structural changes in meditators’ brains.
“I think what a lot of people misunderstand is that the purpose of meditation isn’t so much to stay focused but it is to train your mind in refocusing,” said Jennings.
Jennings said that mindfulness meditation is becoming very popular and media can make it seem like a “magic cure-all.” However, he stressed that it should not replace all other methods of treatment.
“While it does have the potential to improve psychological and physical health, it should be seen as a potential adjunct rather than the replacement for medical and psychological treatment when that is needed,” Jennings said.
Initially everyone struggles to focus on just the breath or just the body. Ravoori said meditation “takes a while to get used to,” but as she practiced more, she found it easier.
According to Jennings, our minds are always going to wander. That will never change. However, through meditation, we can learn how our minds work and the types of things that they tend to wander toward. In the end, meditation serves as a tool to teach us how to train our minds to come back to the present.
All of the programs provided through the Contemplative Sciences Center, CAPS and the U.Va. Mindfulness Center will continue to be offered and grow in the future.