Mindfulness meditation and you: An alternative way to cope with stress and anxiety

As exam season quickly approaches and the semester comes to an end, stress is in the air.

Mindfulness meditation is an increasingly popular tool recommended by healthcare professionals to help individuals relax the body and the mind, and cope with stress, anxiety, and depression.

So what is the truth about mindfulness meditation, and could it actually be beneficial to you?

Defining mindfulness

Mindfulness can be practiced at any time, anywhere—or all the time and everywhere, as Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explained in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

Mindfulness is a unique and personalized experience for those who try it, according to Heather MacLean, a neurology professor at the University of Ottawa (U of O).

In a November 2016 lecture, MacLean described mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, to present-moment experiences,” in a way that is curious and compassionate.

MacLean said mindfulness can be formal—meditation done in intervals of time, and can include breath awareness, body scans, and yoga—or can be informal when attention is drawn to bring presence to experiences throughout the day, like taking a simple, conscious breath.

For students like Justin Bergamini, a fourth-year communications student at Carleton University and vice-president (operations) of the Carleton Academic Student Government (CASG), mindfulness meditation occurs when he sits down with the intention of meditating.

Mandatory meditation in schools

Several schools across Canada have recently implemented meditation practice into school curriculum. This includes elementary schools in Vancouver and Toronto that are adopting meditation practices during breaks and replacing detention periods, and the U of O, which created a mandatory meditation class for medical students this fall.

André Vellino, a professor at U of O’s School of Information Studies, said he sees the benefit of U of O’s new requirement because meditation is an important treatment to be aware of in the medical field.

But otherwise, Vellino said he does not think universities should make meditation classes a requirement for all students, as it should be a choice and a single type of meditation doesn’t benefit everyone the same.

Bergamini also said meditation might not have as many benefits without education or qualified guidance for students on what they are doing or why they are doing it.

“There are some people who can’t be alone with their own thoughts, stuff like that, who maybe shouldn’t practice mindfulness in the way that I do,” he said.

The Buddhist origins: Is it the only way?

Brian Given, an anthropology and sociology professor at Carleton, said mindfulness is not exclusive to any religion. But he said the practice does have spiritual roots in Buddhism and Hinduism.

At its core, Buddhism is the realization that our own minds cause us unhappiness and suffering, according to Given.

He said most Buddhists practice meditation “to become aware of the process whereby we put our reality together.”

Given said any practice of meditation can be considered a practice of Buddhism, because it is a reflection of an attempt to expand your consciousness and improve awareness—a core aspect of Buddhism—but mindfulness meditation can be practiced secularly with just an active desire for self-awareness.

“[Buddhism gives you] all kinds of tools to get you to awareness, and every religion has some of these tools,” he said.

Vellino said he began practicing mindfulness secularly, and after over 30 years of practice, he now identifies as a Buddhist.

Bergamini, however, opted for a secular practice of mindfulness meditation, and Senthuran Thevaseelan, a third-year civil engineering student at Carleton, said mindfulness is a spiritual practice for him.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation

“When you meditate, food tastes better and colours are brighter. If you are an artist and you meditate, your art will be better,” Given said. “If you are a student and you meditate, you will be a better student.”

Vellino agreed that practicing mindfulness can teach you to appreciate the little things in life and changes how you interpret your experiences.

Vellino, Bergamini, and Thevaseelan all said they have become calmer, more compassionate people, with improved emotional coping skills, and felt better satisfaction with life since they began practicing mindfulness meditation.

MacLean said the results of a brain scan study found experienced meditators were more capable of sound judgment, more aware of internal bodily sensations, more capable of reasonable empathy, and less likely to negatively react to stress.

A 2014 study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association also found meditation was as effective as antidepressants as a form of treatment for the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Bergamini said he began practicing mindfulness as a way to cope with his anxiety symptoms.

“In the fall of last year, my anxiety symptoms were really, really bad, and I kind of thought that if I was doing everything right in life, I wouldn’t have anxiety,” he said.

Bergamini said he had a job, a girlfriend, friends and family, and was involved on campus at the time.

“I was doing everything on  the outside that meant you were doing well in life, essentially, but my anxiety was the worst that it had ever been, and I wasn’t happy,” he said.

Since starting meditation, and in conjunction with regular journaling, exercise, and adequate sleep, he said his previously debilitating anxiety has become very manageable.

He added he has become more aware of how his actions affect others.

“If I’m getting off the bus and I kind of cut off someone to get off first, I feel horrible about it. I can’t separate my actions from the experiences of other people anymore,” Bergamini said.

Vellino said he began practicing mindfulness meditation in 1981, when he was a graduate student and heard about the usefulness of breathing techniques.

Now, after years of practice, he said he has developed healthier ways to deal with anger and negative feelings, and has a much easier time doing everyday activities that could induce anxiety, such as talking in front of a crowd.

Thevaseelan said mindfulness meditation has helped him “stay calm in any situation, enjoy the present more, and ultimately understand [himself] more.”

So how can you practice mindfulness?

Bergamini said he practices mindfulness about 10 minutes per day.

“Basically, you’re going to sit down on a chair or a cushion, ideally somewhere comfortable, and you’re going to sit upright. Then you will begin breathing, and you don’t actually have to control your breath—you actually don’t want to. And then you’re going to bring your focus inwards,” he said.

Kelley Raab, a spiritual care associate at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Hospital, said meditation is about bringing your attention to the rhythm of your breath, the inner sensations running through your body, and the sounds around you—thinking in the present moment, rather than worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, as typically done by those struggling with anxiety or depression.

Ultimately, a mindfulness practice is a learning process, and Raab said she encourages those interested to learn from a teacher, and practice meditation in conjunction with counselling or antidepressants if the practice is to help alleviate mental illness.

Raab added similar benefits from mindfulness can be achieved through practicing breathing techniques and yoga.

Meditation should also be practiced in whichever way works best for you, according to Vellino.

“I prefer to have my eyes closed but you might prefer them open. I sit, but you may prefer to walk,” he said.

Interested in practicing mindfulness?
– Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic
– Classes are offered at the University of Ottawa’s Academy for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
– “Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness” is an application available for Apple and Android devices
– Graphics by Christophe Young