Credit: Mindfulness by Darragh O Connor (cc)

University life today places increasing demands on the minds and bodies of students, and the ability to reflect on what is happening in mind and body can be key to responding to such demands with sensible choices: choices that prioritise mental and physical wellbeing, and nourish academic achievement. An approach that can help students cope with these increasing demands is the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice aims to bring awareness and attention to the present experience, and is linked to a variety of positive outcomes including: increased empathy, objectivity, improved focus and concentration, resilience, reduced stress and burnout. Mindfulness skills help students to remain calm and to sustain attention and focus in response to everyday life and to high pressure. Simple breathing and meditation practices increase awareness of thought and feelings, therefore reducing anxiety and stress and boosting concentration levels and attention spans.

Whatever students are studying, at every level, it is guaranteed that at some stages during their course they will need high levels of self-awareness, emotional regulation and cognitive control. Students can experience intense pressure during demanding, and often frantic, times: such as when preparing for exams, presenting to audiences, writing to deadlines, performing on stage, or being assessed in clinical environments. Throughout their course students are consistently expected to demonstrate motivation and persistence to build knowledge and to develop skills.

Last year, here at the University of West London, a group of undergraduate mental health nursing students was introduced to mindfulness in the classroom during a practice development day. The students were introduced to the nature of mindfulness, acquainted with the mindfulness skill of focussed breathing, and engaged in a five minute breathing exercise prior to the role-play activities of the session.

All students completed two evaluation forms based on their experience. Five randomly selected students from the group participated in a focus group discussion to explore their experience of this approach. All the students were able to integrate the mindfulness skills to the role-play activities and found the approach useful in calming themselves and enhancing self-awareness. The students were unanimous in their indication for further sessions using this approach and were keen to further develop mindfulness skills as part of their nursing training.

Attention to one’s experience, simply noticing what you are doing now, sounds easy, yet in practice it is often a challenge with the constant distractions and interruptions inherent to everyday life. Yet students who are able to focus and pay attention to their thoughts, emotions and routines deepen their experience. When students are mindful they are able to engage as reflective learners from a theoretical, personal, practical, critical and process perspective; seeing situations from multiple viewpoints and thinking about what they are doing while they are doing it maximizes learning.

Interest in providing mindfulness resources in higher education is growing with an increasing evidence base of measurably effective approaches being accrued. A number of UK universities, including Bangor, Glasgow and Oxford, offer mindfulness courses to students using a variety of approaches: lunchtime drop-in sessions, monthly class, eight-week groups, and training courses.

Introducing mindfulness to students at the University of West London is an idea well worth exploring: educators who incorporate mindfulness approaches to the student journey may help students with stress, enhance their learning and increase their satisfaction with the organisation they choose to study at. The modern curriculum, with its set of predicted learning outcomes, does not allow for much space to introduce and practice ‘mindfulness’. However, a creative approach to offering this valuable opportunity to students surely must be considered, as an increasing awareness of the benefits of mindfulness is widely recognised as significant in today’s frantic world.

Further reading:
Regehr, C., Glancy, D., and Pitts, A. (2013) Interventions to reduce stress in university students: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders. 148, 1-11

Author: Tina Stern is a lecturer in Mental Health at the College of Nursing, Midwifery and Healthcare at the University of West London.