With classes, extra-curricular activities and limited budget, it can be hard for students to always maintain healthy lifestyles. Many students try to eat a balanced diet, exercise and meditate or practice self-care. At times, it may be difficult to establish a routine, but various communities and programs on and near Grounds can help them keep up with their goals.
Many choose to practice mindfulness, which is the act of focusing attention on the present moment while acknowledging thoughts and emotions that arise. Mindfulness has been shown to help reduce stress and boost overall mood and health. Mindfulness practices are taught in various University classes as well as drop-in classes from organizations such as the Contemplative Sciences Center and the Mindfulness Center.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, American professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was a key figure in the development of mindfulness practice in the United States. Hypothesizing that mindfulness may help patients experiencing chronic pain, Kabat-Zinn created the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979. It went on to become the precedent for mindfulness programs and classes throughout the country.
According to Nursing Assoc. Prof. Samuel Green, mindfulness is defined as being aware in any situation.
“The point is to be present with whatever comes up, [whether it is] pleasant, unpleasant or neutral,” Green said. “As a result of doing that over and over and over again, the mind becomes less reactive.”
Studies have further shown mindfulness helps those who are suffering from chronic pain, including people who rely on opioids as painkillers.
Green and John Schorling, director of the University’s Mindfulness Center and professor in the University School of Medicine, explained that the exact mechanism by which mindfulness provides physiological benefits is not yet well understood. But researchers have been able to conclude that it helps reduce levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This reduction can lead to benefits, including better immune system function and decreased inflammation.
Schorling also mentioned that mindfulness has been shown to decrease the feeling of burn-out in healthcare providers. In addition to MBSR classes, the Mindfulness Center also offers a class specifically designed for the University Health System’s employees. Although it is based on MBSR, the Mindfulness for Health System Employees class focuses on teaching employees to balance self-care with patient care via mindfulness, Schorling explained.
“We often use the airline analogy — in case of a drop in cabin pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others,” Schorling said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.
Although the Mindfulness Center is open to the greater Charlottesville community, the classes require a fee and are not aimed at students, Green explained. Instead, for University students he teaches a class in the School of Nursing. Green said that students often say they wished they had taken the class earlier and explained how it helps them.
“Students who are pretty good about doing the daily practice, after three or four weeks, find that they're getting that 20 minutes back in the rest of the day because they're more focused, and they get work done faster and better,” Green said.
Diane Whaley, education professor and director of lifetime physical activity program, explained that the kinesiology department also offers many mindfulness, meditation and yoga classes for University students. Due to the increasing popularity of these classes, the department also offers a yoga class — KINE 1410 — with one section reserved exclusively for first-year students.
These kinesiology classes, as well as Green’s class, are all one credit and are graded as credit or no-credit rather than being assessed using the letter-grade scale. The classes have a strict attendance policy, as they involve practicing mindfulness in person.
Whaley highly encourages students to try these classes.
"I think one of the misconceptions is that it's hard to do or you have to spend a lot of time doing it and that's just not true," she said. “The first important step in alleviating stress is recognizing it, and mindfulness gives us that break to take a step back and say, ‘what am I worried about?’”
In addition to academic classes offered by the University, students can attend drop-in classes at the Contemplative Sciences Center. Leslie Hubbard, program director for student engagement and contemplative instruction at the Center, explained that its vision is to promote student flourishing — in other words, help students reach their full potential and wellbeing.
Robin Albertson-Wren, an instructor at the Contemplative Sciences Center, encourages students to attend drop-in meditation and mindfulness classes offered at Clemons Library. Students can enjoy these classes for free, and Albertson-Wren noted that most of the classes are conveniently located in Clemons.
Whaley, Green and Schorling echoed the sentiment of taking a class to help students keep up with mindfulness practices and integrate them into their schedules.
Albertson-Wren also suggested using daily concrete tasks, such as picking up keys or walking through a certain door, as times to pause slightly and take a few deep breaths.
Lastly, Whaley emphasized the importance of college students taking time now to prioritize self-care practices.
“It's really important, I think, to establish these habits now before you get into your careers, because if you're thinking you're going to … balance your work-life ten years down the road, that's very difficult to do,” Whaley said.