Joas discovers Mindfulness
My mind wouldn't shut up
My mind won’t shut up. I just got home from class, followed by a meeting at the UKrant, and people from my year club will be at my place in an hour for dinner. The concept of conflicts in the Balkan and ideas for improving my latest article battle for dominance in my crowded mental space. And I have no idea what I’m going to serve for dinner.
I can’t handle the pressure in my head. I’m tense; itchy, even. A few months ago, I would have reached for a beer to numb the stress. But now, I sit down on the couch, reach for my phone, and turn on the Omvana meditation app.
I close my eyes and listen to the crisp accent of Omvana inventor Vishen Lakhiani walking me through the steps: ‘Feel the relaxation in your scalp’, he says. I imagine someone gently caressing the top of my head.
‘Now feel this feeling go over to your eyelids. Feel how relaxed they are’, Lakhiani continues.
I try my best, focusing on my cheeks, my neck, my shoulders, my arms, moving all the way down to my feet.
After four minutes, Lakhiani starts counting down from ten to one. I open my eyes, feeling like I just enjoyed a hot, relaxing bath. Time to plan dinner.
Mindfulness is dumb, right?
If someone had recommended a mindfulness app to me several months ago, I probably would’ve told them to get lost. It sounded like something for hippies – not me.
I’m not the only one. All my friends, frat members, and fellow students are similarly contemptuous of mindfulness. The only people they know who are interested in mindfulness are vegetarians who want to save the world or something. That’s an exaggeration of course, but that’s kind of how I saw it too.
Yet here I am. When I started my bachelor in history in 2016, my goal was to continue to get a master’s degree in philosophy. I was doing fine, getting good grades, making friends. My life was right on track. Or so it seemed.
But suddenly, it hit me that nothing I was doing made me happy. In fact, I didn’t care much about what I was studying at all. For two years, all I’d been focused on was getting my diploma. But I had no clue what to do once I had it.
There are only 24 ours in the day and I made sure I was busy every single one of them
I hoped the student psychologists at the Student Service Centre could help, and booked an appointment. But I struggled to talk about my feelings, and the psychologist had a tendency to misinterpret the things I did say. In the meantime, I joined six committees at once to distract myself from my fear of the future. I started to neglect my studies.
What I went through is apparently common. A 2017 study by the Groningen Student Union showed that 62 percent of students experience stress at one time or another. And 66 percent of students don’t know how to cope with big changes in their life. They tend to blame themselves, start drinking too much, or turn to drugs, ranging from weed to pills. These behaviours only cause more problems.
Then in 2019, the Student organisation ISO found that the new loans system is only making things worse: 73 percent of students who borrow money from the government experience stress, and 40 percent of them are emotionally exhausted and on the brink of a burn-out.
All the committee work I had heaped onto my plate was not sustainable. There are only twenty-four hours in the day, and I made sure I was busy and distracted for every single one of them. When I finally had to withdraw from one of the committees, an Unitas senator suggested I talk to a coach.
But it does help!
I met with student coach Niels the very next day. In spite of my initial scepticism, he was the first person in a long time who made me feel heard. He helped me see that I had let the things that were truly important to me fall by the wayside. I was ignoring my own destructive behaviour. I was allowing trauma from my past to stop me from considering my future beyond university and the friends I have right now. A few coaching sessions in, Niels recommended I try mindfulness.
I was cynical too
I did. Now I try to stop four times a week to clear my mind and figure out why I’m getting stuck. I ask myself what is truly bothering me and what I really want.
And you know what? It’s totally working.
Student coach Roos-Veerle Krijnen also helps students and alumni through coaching, meditation, and yoga. She says that highly educated people are especially focused on being rational and have a tendency to ignore their emotions. ‘In students, this often results in heavy drinking or drug use’, Krijnen explains. ‘But with mindfulness, we try to make you focus on your thoughts in a positive way instead of ignoring them.’
She knows all about the scepticism surrounding mindfulness. ‘Even I was cynical. But then I started to notice its effects on my body and mind and how much better I began to feel’, she says.
Hippie image aside, mindfulness is a proven technique and a popular way to treat depression, says professor of psychiatry Hans Ormel. ‘Its effects on mood disorders is practically the same as that of antidepressants. This kind of therapy gets the same results as those caused by the chemical substance in the pills.’
Meditation can free yourself from negative thought patterns
Cognitive modelling lecturer Marieke van Vugt, who practises mindfulness herself, knows that people who engage in intense meditation have an easier time focusing. She simulates cognitive processes such as focusing with computer models. ‘When you learn to meditate, you learn to check whether you are focusing on the things you want to focus on. It allows you to become better aware of your thoughts’, she says.
She likes to call it ‘getting in touch with your mind’. ‘Meditation teaches you to be more flexible in how you respond to things and to worry less. You become more aware of what you are focusing on and can free yourself from negative thought patterns.’
In short, mindfulness really does work. But no one really knows how it works. ‘One recent study showed that people who practise intense meditation have more control over their posterior cingulate cortex, an area in the brain we think might regulate our sense of self’, says Van Vugt.
Better control over this portion of the brain means you can focus more on what’s important to you, allowing you to work more efficiently, or to handle challenges better. As Krijnen says to her clients: ‘You have to do it yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone.’
Would you like to try mindfulness?
If you’re broke or you’d rather not do mindfulness with other people around, or you’ve already taken a course and you just need a refresher, try the apps Headspace or Omvana.