Matthew Greenacre / Student Health Education Centre
One of the best pieces of advice given by a professor must have been when Dr. Valliant told his first year chemistry class about to take a midterm to “think by the seat of your pants.” Though it seems like an odd phrase, it makes sense. Often when students come to a question they find unfamiliar, something that they cannot remember studying, they get anxious and waste time sweating and fumbling to search their memory. Instead it helps a lot more to sit back, breathe, and think about the question. Just wing it. After all, it’s just a question, and this way you might reason through it.
Test anxiety, or simply worrying about presentations, papers, and readings can be absolutely debilitating. Students can easily become overwhelmed, fret about doing their work and wind up watching seasons and seasons of online TV instead of beginning a paper or cracking their textbook open. Then when there is no other option but to frantically pour over their notes, or pull an all-nighter writing, the student often winds up unhappy with their work. Finding yourself in this situation is not simply about intelligence, or a matter of having a poor work ethic. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. It is the difference between striving for success and being driven by the prospect of failure. The subtle difference between these two states is all about one’s attitude to work. Being able to see it as a challenge that one will enjoy taking on, like a puzzle, or it can just be, well, hard work.
Making the switch can be much harder for some than others. For many students, it can be as simple as taking a deep breath during our exam, being okay with not knowing the answer, and then giving “thinking by the seat of your pants” a try. However, those who might find this unthinkable, and who have a lot of trouble quelling their anxiety on a day-to-day basis could really benefit from taking the time to sit back and actually clear their mind.
A long history of studies going back to pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School) in the 1970’s and ‘80’s have found that meditation reduces stress and anxiety, and even chronic pain. Now, before dismissing this article as a sneaky attempt to get you into saffron robes, lighting incense and hanging around with hippies, please note that meditation does not have to involve any of those things, unless you really want it to. It is really is more about taking a deep breath, letting go of your worry and being able to deal with your problems. Also, for most of us, stress is mental, not physical pain like as hunger, so it makes sense that we should be able to use our minds to release this stress.
Mindfulness-meditation in particular is about being able to let go of your fears by focusing on the moment. Because, when you think about it, fears are just a manifestation of the feeling that something bad will happen. By being in the moment you do not make those pessimistic assumptions in the first place. That does not mean that you no longer think the thoughts that worry you, but rather you just calmly choose not to follow these trains of thought. What is known as focused attention meditation is the painstaking practice of focusing on a single thing or sensation, noticing when you’ve been distracted by something else, and then bringing your attention back to what you are supposed to be focusing on. By practicing this, you train yourself to see the problem in front of you clearly, helping you figure out how to solve it, while learning not to automatically get nervous about the “what if’s.” Research at universities in Beijing, Oregon and Dalian have found that meditation effectively improves one’s attention and self-discipline, which is not surprising if one is spending an appreciable amount of time focusing intently on something very boring, such as breathing.
So given that, it’s understandable that meditation is not everyone’s cup of ginseng infusion, but if you are having trouble with stress it is important to take the time to deal with it. This time is never wasted, because less stress lets you focus and be more productive when you are doing work. Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress, as is spending time with friends. However, if you are interested in meditation resources to learn more about it and help you get started are posted on the SHEC Blog, which you can visit at www.shecmcmaster.tumblr.com.