What You Need to Know about Mindfulness, Your New Finals Season Hack

Finals season: the two words that send college students all across the country into a panic (this one included, TBH). For a lot of us, the end of the semester typically snowballs into a frenzy of all-nighters, cramming for tests, and maybe even crying in the library. But while all the people around you are getting caught up in the stress, there’s at least one way you might be able to keep your cool when exams start up, and it’s called mindfulness.

Her Campus has explored the benefits of mindfulness already, but what exactly is it, and how can you utilize it as you begin to power through the last few weeks of the semester? Read on to find out:

So, what is it?

If you don’t know what mindfulness is, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center defines it as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Simply put, it’s a specific style of meditation that involves grounding yourself in the present moment.

Its origins can be traced back to Buddhist meditation practices, but it’s gained traction among American psychologists in recent years for its mental health benefits, which include higher brain functioning, lowered heart rate and blood pressure, increased attention and focus, and lowered anxiety levels, among other things.

OK, but is it legit?

Maybe meditation in general doesn’t sound very scientific – after all, how much could sitting there and thinking really do? It turns out, quite a bit.

If the spiritual nature of it makes you a bit skeptical, don’t worry; there’s scientific backing for this one. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn created a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, and it’s spawned a whole movement of MBSR programs at universities and other institutions across the nation. In fact, it’s becoming more mainstream in the academic world overall: my positive psychology class this semester spent an entire week talking about the practice of mindfulness, and countless studies describing the benefits of mindfulness have been published since Kabat-Zinn’s founding of the MBSR program.

Related: Here’s Why Meditation Has Been Such a Valuable Tool for Coping with My Anxiety

But how do I do it?

Here’s the fantastic thing about mindfulness: anyone can do it, and it’s absolutely free! After all, you know what they say about college students and how they love free stuff. So, no, you don’t have to pay a huge price to go to yoga or drink some weird, fruity tea if you want to feel relaxed. Just find a quiet place (hi, dorm room), a comfortable seat (hello, bed), and a moment to think.

This doesn’t mean it won’t take some getting used to, however. Meditation looks easy from the outside, but many people find it hard to achieve, because they think they have to turn their brains “off” and not think about anything. This is the difference with mindfulness: you’re not trying to control anything; you’re letting things happen as they may and taking note. Think of yourself as an outside observer to your own mind.

In other words, you’ll want to start by thinking about the present moment, according to Mindful. How does your body feel? Think about the physical sensations you’re having. One of the most important parts is thinking about your breath, because there’s nothing more present than your inhaling and exhaling. Though it can be tempting, don’t try to regulate your breathing, or to make all your breaths deep and even. Just breathe as you normally would, and notice what that “normal” is for you.

Mindfulness is all about going with the flow. Your mind will wander; that’s just how minds work, so don’t get frustrated when you suddenly start thinking about that upcoming paper deadline or group project meeting. All you have to do is notice that your thoughts have strayed to somewhere else, and then think, “Alright, let’s reel it back in,” and return to noticing your breath. This may be a weird comparison, but your train of thought is kind of like a dog you’re walking: whenever it gets too far, just tug on that leash and bring it back to you.

Mindful also emphasizes that you might start to judge yourself as you’re meditating, and that’s also totally normal. Who doesn’t feel weird when they’re sitting in complete silence, thinking about how they’re not thinking? The crux is not to let these thoughts take the driver’s seat, however. Observe the thought, and then let it pass. Focusing on your breath will be most helpful here, because it’s the most constant thing you do; you can always return to noticing your pattern of inhaling and exhaling.

Ten minutes is usually a good cutoff point for mindfulness meditation. You can set a timer before you begin, or try out a meditation app or website like Calm to guide you through the process. This short duration means you can easily squeeze it into your schedule, even if you’re super-busy, like everyone is this time of year. Try it out at different points of the day and see which works best for you: maybe it’s right before you go to sleep, so you’re not tossing and turning about that presentation you have tomorrow, or it could be right after you wake up, so you can take on the day feeling rejuvenated and refreshed. My psychology professor even had our entire class do a mindfulness meditation before we took our midterm, and I was able to absolutely crush that test—though your professor may not be OK with you spacing out in the classroom, you can meditate right before you head over to that one stressful exam.

Mindfulness involves trial and error, so be kind to yourself. The more you do it, the more you’ll be able to keep yourself in the present moment without getting distracted, and the calmer you’ll feel after you’re done. And even though you may find it silly at first, I promise you’ll feel a lot better doing it than you would about bursting into tears in the library out of stress. Good luck with exam season, and take care of yourself!