Despite what you see in movies and Snapchat stories, the first few months of college can be a tenuous time for many. Sharing a bedroom with a stranger, navigating a new class schedule with more freedom — and homework — constantly meeting new people and living on a steady diet of pizza and (increasingly better) cafeteria food can easily combine to create a stressful first semester.
Fortunately, a new study suggests that taking a few deep breaths, some meditation and other mental exercises may help students make it through. Freshmen who participated in an eight-week “mindfulness” program were less likely to experience depression, anxiety and alcohol-related incidents, like a hangover or blackout, than a control group who did not, according to a study published in a recent issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of American College Health.
“Students’ mental health is incredibly important for their success,” said Kamila Dvorakova, one of the authors of the study. “Interventions that are based on mindfulness and compassion are focused on strengthening (students’) ability to do well in college.”
Mindfulness training typically includes exercises aimed at helping participants be present and in touch with their thoughts. The students studied in the research were exposed to the “Breathe” curriculum, a program focused on teaching mindfulness to young adults. As part of the study, students participated in group sessions centered around skills like body awareness and understanding and working with their thoughts. They also received cards to use at home to remind them to perform mindfulness techniques, such as taking three deep breaths in response to stress.
Though the study observed a relatively small group of students (109 in total), the findings provide some insight into strategies campuses can use to help ease the transition to college for students and help them have a healthier experience overall.
Colleges and universities have struggled to cope with a growing number of students facing mental health challenges while in school. Mindfulness training is of course no replacement for counseling, but it may complement existing resources available on college campuses, said Dvorakova, the compassion and caring fellow at the human development and family studies department at Pennsylvania State University.
“It’s not just having a counseling center,” she said. “The treatment is super important, but that’s at the end of the line when things already went downhill. What can we do to prevent that?” She suggests that colleges do more to indicate to students that they value wellness and health in addition to academic achievements.
The findings also come amid mindfulness’s growing cache in the corporate world. Companies are increasingly offering employees’ sessions on how better to cope with stress as well as boost focus and memory. What’s more an explosion of other apps and tools has helped turn mindfulness and meditation into a nearly $1 billion industry.