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Mindfulness is more than stress management

By Holly Rogers, M.D.

At the university counseling center where I work, the students are limp with relief when the semester finally grinds to an end and summer arrives. For college students and graduate students around the country, summer brings a much-needed break from the pressures of the academic year. However, academic pressures are not the only challenges facing emerging adults, young people between the ages of 19-29. They are typically dealing with a wide range of challenges and stressors that are related to their stage of life; they are in the midst of a developmental process that can take quite a bit of fortitude to resolve.

Emerging adults are in the business of developing their adult identities, the primary task for this age group. They are engaged in the enterprise of exploring career options, making decisions about their life path, trying on different relationships, suffering disappointments and searching for meaning from it all.

What exactly does it look like to develop an “adult identity”? Basically, it looks like a young person starting to make decisions based on his or her own unique preferences and perspectives. You see the adult identity forming when the young woman discovers, not so much that her parents were right, but rather that her own values have evolved to the point that her wonderfully laid back and cool boyfriend is starting to look aimless and lazy. You see it in the young man whose parents and peers really think he should be a doctor, but he discovers he’d prefer to teach. You also see it in the young man who decides to return to or reject his family’s religious rituals, the young woman who changes political parties, and the young gay person who bravely allows those close to him to see his true self. These are all ways that emerging adults start to identify and express the values that will guide them as they progress through life.

The emerging adults who will have the best luck with this quest, are the ones who take the time to become acquainted with their authentic desires and their core values. Decisions based on this level of self-understanding are more likely to lead to greater life-satisfaction.

So how does one start to understand his or her authentic desires and core values? One of the best tools I know of is the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the skill of bringing your awareness into the present moment, forgetting your worries about the future and your regrets about the past as you focus your attention, without judgment, on your moment-to-moment experience.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the ability to maintain present-moment awareness has tremendous physical and psychological benefits. Mindfulness has become extremely popular in this culture, with proponents pointing out it’s myriad of positive effects on our immune systems, cardiovascular systems, and moods, to name just a few. Many people learn mindfulness for its inherent health and stress-management effects. For emerging adults though, the perks of mindfulness practice can go beyond these basic health benefits.

Mindfulness meditation, when practiced regularly, allows you to become familiar with the workings of your mind in a way that can have profound consequences. “Mindfulness” is the translation of the Pali word “vipassana”; it can also be translated as “insight” or “clear-seeing”. Vipassana meditation is an ancient Buddhist meditation and it is a practice that leads to self-transformation through self-understanding. In addition to deep self-knowledge, vipassana meditation also develops certain qualities of mind including gratitude, compassion, contentment, and patience. The practice has been brought to the west and is often taught in a secular form, separate from its Buddhist roots. Whether it is linked with Buddhism or not, the practice has the potential to create transformative self-knowledge, the sort of self-knowledge that is particularly valuable to emerging adults.

One of my students articulated her experience with mindfulness meditation beautifully when she said, “I started this practice because I felt anxious and thought it would help me sleep. But it has become so much more than that to me. For the first time, I’m recognizing how all the judgments I have about myself keep me from doing the things I want to do. I don’t think I’ll ever see myself the same way again.”

Self-knowledge and greater life-satisfaction can benefit us all at any age, but for emerging adults, these gifts can have particular value. So if you are an emerging adult with some time on your hands this summer, I offer you a challenge. Make a commitment to spend at least ten minutes every day looking quietly inwards. For ten minutes, pull out your ear buds, shut off your phones, and close your laptops. Sit in a comfortable chair, but don’t lounge; sit with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes, and allow yourself to begin to notice the feel of your breath as you slowly inhale, then exhale. Almost immediately, your mind will begin to work, producing thoughts about all manner of things: what you need to do, what you want to do, who you like, who you don’t like, why you are right and everyone else is wrong. See if you can notice these thoughts as they start up, then let them drift away as you bring your attention, without judgment or criticism, back to the sensations of your breath. If you are like me and pretty much everyone else I know, you will have the opportunity to notice your thoughts and come back to your breath over and over and over again. Remember, you are not trying to stop your thoughts, just notice and release them.

Every day, for ten minutes, do nothing but sit, feel your breath, notice when thoughts arise and return your attention to your breath. It sounds simple but it is not easy. Allow yourself to be curious and patient. Find a good book about mindfulness and read it. See what happens.

Holly Rogers, M.D., is a Psychiatrist at Counseling & Psychological Services, Duke University and a Clinical Associate in the Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center. She is the co-author of Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives with Margaret Maytan, M.D., M.A., a Clinical Associate in the Department of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center.

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