meditateThese days, it can feel like the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” are heard at every turn, and that opportunities for yoga and other “zen”-related activities abound, especially on college campuses.  But how much do you really know about meditation, and perhaps more importantly, have you taken any steps to try it out for yourself?  To supplement his own interest in meditation and its’ practical application here at UCSB, second year pre-biology student Zachary Muir sat down with UCSB C.A.P.S. psychologist Kirsten Olson, Ph.D. for her thoughts.

1. Meditation can lower stress, boost test scores, enhance relationships and improve health.  
Research has shown a myriad of ways in which meditation can help shape our brains and positively impact our lives. Right here at UCSB, researchers are finding that receiving as little as two weeks of mindfulness training can lead to significant improvements in students’ ability to focus, reading comprehension and memory capacity, all of which resulted in higher test scores. Olson has worked with many students who report that meditation “helps their concentration in classes” and helps them manage their stress and anxiety, which can have significant impacts on academic performance. Research also indicates that practicing mindfulness can also help lower the stress hormone, cortisol, a major factor in many health-related and interpersonal issues.
“Students tend to worry a lot about the future,” Olson explains. “‘What if I fail my exam? What if I fail the class? Oh my god, I’m never going to get a job and I am going to end up homeless under a bridge, right?’”
She goes on to say that mindfulness and meditation can be used to control that kind of catastrophic thinking and she has noticed substantive results when leading students through mindfulness meditation exercises in sessions. Olson discussed how mindfulness meditation can also “help (students) to be more present in their relationships.” Research shows that meditation can improve closeness and communication, acceptance of others and general satisfaction in both romantic and non-romantic relationships. Olson clarifies that practicing mindfulness is “not like a miracle cure … it is like going to the gym … it is something you have to maintain.”
However, there are a variety of small and manageable ways to incorporate it into daily life.

2. Meditation can be helpful for students wanting to moderate their alcohol or drug and also for students in recovery.
Some of the biggest challenges for people trying to change their substance use, or for those in recovery, include coping with cravings and managing anxiety and other difficult thoughts and feelings. Olson offers that, “Some substance abuse may be related to boredom, anxiety or irritability — perhaps negative internal feelings. Sometimes these feelings rise up like a wave and people feel really uncomfortable. When they reach a peak, they may use, or think about using, substances to try and immediately decrease these uncomfortable emotions.” Meditation can help with the “urge surfing” so that people can “learn to ride the waves of uncomfortable feelings … observe them, learn to tolerate them and allow them to pass by.” By developing the skills to be more present in the moment, people can use a meditation practice to connect with their thoughts, feelings and behaviors and possibly make healthier and more goal-oriented choices.

3. Important meditation research is happening right here on the UCSB campus.
According to UCSB’s “Profiles in Research” website, a research team from the UCSB Psychology Department tested students on memory capacity and reading comprehension before and after mindfulness training and found the training to be an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive functioning. The website states that, “A study by UCSB researchers found that as little as two weeks of mindfulness training can improve memory, GRE performance and focus.” The participating students demonstrated higher test scores and less “mind wandering”… a mental state that has previously shown to disrupt reading comprehension and other cognitive tasks. The website offers at least 10 additional research and journal articles that endorse the effectiveness of mindfulness training.

A study by UCSB researchers found that as little as two weeks of mindfulness training can improve memory, GRE performance and focus.

4. There are many different ways to meditate.
“Meditation is a practice of training the mind and modes of consciousness,” Olson explains. “I practice mindfulness meditation which means paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment.”
She clarifies that there are numerous ways to meditate in both formal and informal practice, and that mindfulness can even be used in daily activities like eating and walking. In mindfulness meditation, the breath serves as the focus of attention “because it is always happening in this moment … we can always come back to it” even when our mind wanders. People often misunderstand what it means to be mindful or to meditate.
“It is very difficult to just sit down, close your eyes and meditate if you have never learned how,” Olson explains. “I would definitely suggest that somebody learns from a teacher so that you can learn the theory about meditation, the techniques, and the richness of what it means to meditate from someone.”
While learning to be more mindful can be challenging, Olson says “the more you do it, the easier it comes to you.” Practices like yoga, which complement meditation practice, involve “the yolking together of mind, body and spirit, so it promotes a general sense of wellbeing.” Olson suggests that students start by joining an existing drop-in meditation group, try taking a yoga class or find some guided meditations that are available online.

5. There are many opportunities for meditation and yoga at UCSB and many different ways to learn to develop these skills:
-Drop-in group meditations at Embarcadero Hall (see the Alcohol & Drug Program website for more info)
C.A.P.S. support group “Being in the Moment: Mindfulness for Psychological Resilience.”
-Yoga classes through the Rec Center, Leisure Review
-Egg Chair or Massage Chairs at C.A.P.S.
-Walk the Labyrinth
-Yoga and Meditation through St. Michael’s University Church in I.V.
-Free guided meditations on UCLA’s M.A.R.C. Institute website
-Smartphone Apps: Headspace, Simply Being
-Free guided meditations on Tara Brach’s website

Zachary Muir is a second-year pre-biology student.
Kirsten Olson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UCSB Counseling and Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.), is a Registered Yoga Teacher and has been trained by internationally recognized meditation teachers.