Improving Academic Performance

Mindfulness as a Vehicle for Improving Cognition & Reducing Stress

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 @ 11:00 AM

photo-1464746133101-a2c3f88e0dd9.jpegThere’s been a lot of talk recently (in certain psychology or educational circles, at least) on the topic of mindfulness practice and its various benefits. What was once a feature of eastern philosophy/religion has grown into an increasingly Western and somewhat mainstream activity. Two of the most potentially powerful benefits of mindfulness practice include cognitive enhancement and stress-reduction. As a result, mindfulness has started to be implemented in school systems and curricula worldwide. But what is the practice of mindfulness, just how effective is it, and how can we reap the benefits by incorporating mindfulness into our lives? .

“Mindfulness can be defined as the psychological capacity to stay willfully present with one's experiences, with a non-judgmental or accepting attitude, engendering a warm and friendly openness and curiosity” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). This article explores the science behind mindfulness practice and its effects on academic performance and stress reduction along with a few helpful tips to incorporate mindfulness practice into your daily living.

The general notion behind mindfulness involves present awareness. That is to say, being as fully aware of the present moment as possible. Another pillar of the practice is to be “non-judgmental” in the assessment of the current situation. The roots of such an exercise date back to over 2,500 years ago in Buddhist tradition (as well as the tradition of various other Eastern modalities). By bringing ones awareness to the present moment, one ceases to invest their energy into the past and the future, both of which are simply creations of one’s mind to begin with. While deliberation of future choices and pontification of prior events are necessary from time to time, it is no surprise to hear that all too many of us spend too much time and energy “inside our heads” in one of these two places. As a result, we relinquish our ability to savor and utilize the only moment that truly exists: the present. But how can this concept benefit the striving student achieve success? Well for one, it increases attention span. These techniques help steady the mind and train its attentional capacity, while also increasing its breadth of focus (Zenner,C et al., 2014).

Increasing attention span and the ability to focus on complex information sounds like a poweful benefit for a student.

Here’s a simple exercise one can utilize to develop a state of mindfulness and garner these benefits:

 

Technique: The “Anchor” photo-1463559830741-e117d53be7c0.jpeg
        

The first technique we are going to discuss is “the anchor”. Much like the anchor used by a boat or a ship to keep it in place among the current and the waves, we must utilize a simple anchor to hold our awareness in place in the present moment. A common method utilized is to make your breath the anchor. Why our breath? Because it’s something we constantly do, all the time, as long as we live. Bringing awareness into the present moment is simply achieved by “feeling” your senses and sensations all throughout your body. By mindfully feeling my fingers hit the keys on my keyboard, my body pressed against the couch, my puppy’s fur pressed up against me while she sleeps, I draw my attention out of my mind and into the present moment. Thus, in this anchoring to our breath method, we simply become hyper aware of our breath. Really feel the air enter your nostrils or mouth, feel the temperature of the air, feel its sensations as it fills up your lungs with oxygen, vitality and life. As you breath out, repeat the process and really bring awareness to how the breath feels. By attempting to do this for every breath, you will notice your conscious mind being more involved with your surroundings and the present state of matters instead of living in the past of the future.

Expanding on the “Anchor” technique:
Several other variations of this technique may be utilized to develop mindfulness. All these variations have the same common element of bringing ones attention to their five senses. This sensory hyperawareness is what is key to establishing awareness of what is going on around you instead of what is going on in your head.

  • Eating: Mindfulness can be utilized whilst eating by truly savoring the texture, taste and other properties of the food. In modern society, eating is often paired with conversation, television, and other social or entertainment activities. However, in some eastern cultures, such as China, it is encouraged to simply focus on eating and digestion when consuming a meal. The idea is that the extra energy spent doing something in addition to eating, can be focused into actually eating, digesting and enjoying the meal. Thus, engaging our senses during eating can help invoke a stronger sense of mindfulness among the practitioner.

Other techniques to build mindfulness:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Body Scan exercises (a gradual sweeping of attention through the body (Zenner,C et al., 2014).

It is recommended the practitioner engages in about 45 minutes of home practice in mindfulness a day to maximize the benefits gained (Zenner,C et al., 2014).

Mindfulness in the Treatment of Anxiety & Stress

The reduction of evaluation anxiety and stress among students, particularly in higher education is potentially one of the most significant, academic benefits to mindfulness practice. A study evaluating 70 higher education students earning either their bachelor’s or master’s revealed reduction in both cognitive and emotional components of anxiety (Dundas,I. et al., 2016).

Mindfulness in the Treatment of Mental Illness & Disease Statesphoto-1466357955653-f8a10d011dcb.jpeg

While current psychology attempts to treat diseased states of mind, Buddhist practices like mindfulness were used to cultivate positive mind states and promote mental well-being (Wallace,B.A. 2006). Today, the applications and the benefits of Mindfulness based practices have extended both into the clinic and the classroom. Indeed, the two also come together when discussing the benefit of mindfulness for children with learning disorders (e.g. ADHD) and social anxiety disorders. With almost a fifth of children between the ages of thirteen to eighteen experiencing some sort of severe mental illnesses, it is clear that some sort of impactful and therapeutic intervention is necessary (Zenner, C et al., 2014).

To date, the advancements made in the cognitive and psychological fields around mindfulness have far outpaced their introduction in individual's lives and in Western society and school systems, so we can expect to see such practices expanding farther and becoming much more common place in our education system. The data reveals the positive influences of such therapies among a variety of students in a variety of situations. The benefits extend into the clinical realm by treating various disease states.

In conclusion, mindfulness based practice is considered by many to be one of the newest and most revolutionary psyhchological tools in recent memory (even though the practice is almost 3,000 years old...)

We are in an age where we are learning how to unlock the full potential of our minds and new advancements are emerging from ancient traditions and practices. Whether it's meditation, yoga or anchoring yourself in your breath, try incorporating a mindfulness practice into your life today and observe the benefits over time.

About the Author
Gaurav Dubey is the Founder & Executive Producer of BIOLITICS Podcast & Biolitics.org. He has his Master's of Science in Biotechnology from Rush Univeristy. He's a published stem cell biologist who left his doctoral research to further progress the state of scientific journalism through Biolitics & other related endeavors. He is a Senior Tutor and Blog Author for MyGuru.

References

Dundas, I., Thorsheim, T., Hjeltnes, A., & Binder, P. E. (2016). Mindfulness based stress reduction for academic evaluation anxiety: A naturalistic longitudinal study. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30(2), 114-131. doi:1140988 [pii]

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go there you are. New York, NY: Harperion Bok.

Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between buddhism and western psychology. The American Psychologist, 61(7), 690-701. doi:2006-12925-003 [pii]

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools—a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00603 [doi]