It’s once again that time of the semester when deadlines are quickly approaching and exam schedules are being announced. You camp out in the library until closing time or lock yourself in your room while messages of the “Did you go back home?” and “Why aren’t you replying?” variety flash on your phone. If this sounds familiar you are exactly like me – a student of the panic variety. But letting the pressure get to you will merely result in extended periods of time spent staring at a computer screen or doodling on blank pieces of paper, praying for the writer’s block to lift. And while exams are a limited month-long marathon event, there is a bigger issue that many of us struggle with – the inability to live in the moment.
The modern student is a proactive one. With employers spending 6 seconds, on average, before deciding whether to toss our CV to the side we feel immense pressure to differentiate ourselves from the crowd. This gets drilled into us since First Year – do sports, participate in clubs, stand for leadership positions, demonstrate team-working skills. We are constantly thinking about the next assignment, cricket practice, that departmental meeting or the article we are supposed to submit. The truth is that those 3 or 4 years of University pass by far too quickly. In a flash, we are out in the real world working 9-5 jobs, paying off mortgages and dealing with all the other unpleasant aspects of adulthood which children are blissfully unaware of when they dream of growing up. Yet we rush through the best years of our life in a haze of anxiety, eager to close the door on yet another semester.
So how do we actually enjoy life as it is happening to us?
I am not trying to give you an excuse for a spontaneous trip to Amsterdam under the rallying cry of ‘carpe diem.’ Instead, I would like to introduce you to the notion of ‘mindfulness’. In 2010, a major Harvard study of mental health demonstrated that happiness levels were negatively affected when people drifted off while performing an activity. Furthermore, this proved to be a much stronger influence than the type of activity at hand. In other words, people were happiest when they were living in the now. Daydreaming, even when the task was unpleasant, seemed to only amplify their negative emotions. As a Zen proverb says, ‘When walking, walk. When eating eat.’
Practicing mindfulness can help us get back in the moment, be more productive and ultimately – be happier. In fact, the NHS has increasingly been recommending mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for the treatment of depression in recent years. And no – I am not trying to persuade you to spend an extra hour in the morning before your lecture sat on the floor with your legs crossed, meditating to the soothing sounds of waves and wind chimes. But there are simple things you can do to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life and gently redirect your attention back to the present.
Pay attention to your breath: If you feel your heart rate speeding up and the panic over that deadline stirring – stop what you are doing for a minute. Notice how your lungs expand and collapse as you inhale and exhale. Focus on how the air moves through your body. Breathing is something so intrinsic and automated that we hardly ever pay attention to it, so becoming aware of the process will redirect your focus and help you get back to the task at hand.
Become aware of sensations and touch: Focus on the sights smells and sounds around you. Feel the weight of your pen as you writing, observe the blooming flowers on your way to a lecture, savour the subtle notes of the £1 vending machine coffee. The point is to bring the ‘here and now’ to your daily activities. If it starts feeling tedious try marginally changing your routine, like taking a different route, to make it easier to notice your surroundings.
Practice gratitude: Expressing gratitude helps anchor you to the present by fostering awareness. After all, you can only be grateful for things you are conscious of. By taking the time to picture something you are thankful for you to experience gratitude in that very moment, which helps shift your focus to the now. So go for it – convey your appreciation for the new ‘Games of Thrones’ episode or the fact that you can buy drinks with your points at the Union. It really doesn’t matter.
Acknowledge how you feel: Make note of your ‘mental temperature’ throughout the day, so to speak. Do not try to push away uncomfortable emotions like stress but observe patterns in your thought process without passing judgment. What is the source of this feeling? Can you remember other situations that prompted it? By nurturing awareness, we can get better at managing our thoughts and not letting them drive our behavior.
What mindfulness essentially aims to achieve is to switch off the autopilot and direct our attention to experiencing life as it unfolds, preventing us from remaining stuck in our heads. There will always be anxiety-inducing situations in life but what we can do is control how we react and respond to them. Like explaining to our parents exactly how much money we spent on that spontaneous trip to Amsterdam…