This 2,600-year-old Buddhist practice can help beat student stress

student stress
Buddhist teachings present useful ways to cope with stress by calming the mind, controlling negative emotions and feelings. Source: AFP

Student stress is real. Overwhelming and as if an anchor is always pulling down, you don’t feel like yourself. All you feel is a constant race against time as you keep up with an always-packed schedule filled with lectures, assignments and exams. 

You’re so tired but you can’t sleep. You don’t want to but you’re drinking another cup of coffee. You have major FOMO and drag your exhausted self to outings. In between, you’re lonely and homesick. Feeling all of this adds more to the mountain of stress you’re still hiking.

If this is you, then you have student stress.

Symptoms can be physical: headaches or dizziness, muscle tension or pain,
stomach problems, chest pain or a faster heartbeat; mental: can’t focus, can’t decide, overwhelmed, always worrying, forgetful; and behavioural: irritated, snappy, sleeping too much or too little, avoiding certain people or places, or drinking or smoking more.

Just as there are many and various symptoms, there are many and various ways to help with student stress.

Moving more, like going for a run or your favourite sport, can alleviate physical symptoms and release positive hormones. Having a good support system, like friends you can talk to, can lift some of the stressors.

But if you think your student stress is affecting your mind the most, then a 2,600-year-old ancient Buddhist practice may be just what you need.

In fact, the word “mindfulness” originated from the Pali (tha holy language from the Indian subcontinent in which the Buddha’s body of work is written down) term and Sanskrit term “smṛti.”

“Sati” can be translated into the English word “attention.” A more refined translation is “memory of the present.”

It is considered the first of seven factors of enlightenment for Buddhists:

  1. “Sati” or mindfulness
  2. “Dhammavicya” or investigation of the way things are
  3. “Viriya” or effort
  4. “Pīti” or rapture
  5. “Passaddhi” or tranquility
  6. “Samādhi” or concentration
  7. “Upekkhā” or equanimity

We often think monks meditate by sitting cross-legged on the ground — but there’s more to it.

“We tuck in our chin and have the tips of our tongue against the palate, our eyes closed, and then we relax the body as we slowly bring our focus to the point between the nose and top lip,” Venerable Hui Cheng, a monk at Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple said to Los Angeles Times.

“As we bring the focus to the top lip, we allow the mind to be aware of the sensations of breathing in and out naturally.”

For 30 minutes, monks here recite the goal of mindfulness while meditating: “What has happened in the past is history. Nothing for us to bother ourselves over. What has yet to come is the future. Something that does not require speculation. The most important thing at this particular point is now — just to become aware of the present moment.”

And sitting is just one of many forms of meditation. You can walk, practise calligraphy, and even eat to meditate.

“It is a way of life — and an attitude of life that we carry in everyday existence,” he said to Los Angeles Times. “Everything we do in our lives, as long as we are able to apply the mind correctly, with focus and attention, can be meditation.”

student stress

Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind great for coping with stress. Source: AFP

What is mindfulness and what does student stress have anything to do with it?

Mindfulness is a kind of meditation, and it’s all about paying attention to the present moment. Noticing what’s going on around you.

And the best part is, science says it really works. People use mindfulness in businesses and even by  CEOs to be better leaders.

Google, arguably the most powerful company in the free world, has been at the forefront of promoting mindfulness in the workplace. It offers employees mindfulness and meditation programmes such as “Search Inside Yourself.”

When you practise mindfulness, it’s like training your brain to stay focused and calm. You pay attention to your breath and watch your thoughts without getting all worked up about them.

It helps you realise that your thoughts come and go, and you’re not defined by them. Being mindful also means when you have negative thoughts, you can let them go and be kinder to yourself.

But do these work with student stress?

College-age students and young adults are reporting chronic and unhealthy levels of stress at their worst rates ever. Nearly half (46%) of adults ages 18 to 35 reported that “most days they are so stressed they can’t function,” according to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 “Stress in America” report.

Can some breathing exercises actually do anything when student stress is at an all-time high?

There are some studies that suggest practising mindfulness ccan help with regular student stress.

Researchers from Harvard University, MIT and Transforming Education teamed up to see if mindfulness training in schools could help students.

They looked at sixth-graders in a Boston-area school and found that those who did mindfulness exercises for eight weeks were less stressed than their classmates who didn’t.

Mindfulness exercises involved things like focusing on a rock for a minute and noticing when their minds wandered. This helped students pay better attention and control their emotions.

Some of the students even had brain scans, which showed that the group that did mindfulness had less reaction in the part of their brains that controls emotions when they saw scary faces.

This means they were less likely to get stressed out and lose focus. The students who learned computer coding instead didn’t have the same benefits.

cope with stress

Juggling your academics and social life while being so far away from home can be challenging. Source: AFP

Using mindfulness to help with student stress in schools and universities

Mindfulness is pretty effective, hence when the University of Cambridge stopped a mindfulness programme for students, there was backlash.

The programme, called the “mindfulness skills for students programme,” has been offering free classes to students since 2015 and has helped more than 2,500 students.

“There’s no disagreement that student mental health gives more and more cause for concern. But the most effective way of responding, as many professionals agree, is not instantly to ‘medicalise’ all the problems but to provide tools that will genuinely help young people care for themselves and develop habits of self-understanding and self-awareness,” says Dr. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and former master of Magdalene College at Cambridge.

“The mindfulness programme has offered exactly this, and I think the ending of support for it is very bad news indeed.”

You don’t need to sit for 10,000 hours in a temple to practise mindfulness.

Have a look at the ideas below, try them out and notice the difference in your mind and work.

5 best ways to use mindfulness to understand, cope and beat student stress

cope with stress

Daily journaling is a great way to explore your student stress, helping you beat it in the long run. Source: AFP

1. Practice daily journalling

As a university student, daily journaling can be a great way to cope with stress from university. Taking the time to sit down with your notebook and pen and write all your feelings down is an excellent way to let go of any negative feelings you may be feeling. 

A study done in 2018 found that writing down your deepest feelings and thoughts can improve your physical and psychological well-being.

Each day, you unload your worries, to-do lists, and the thoughts racing through your mind. This simple act of putting your thoughts on paper can help you untangle the mess.

You begin to see what’s truly bothering you — maybe that tough assignment or the fear of an upcoming exam. By naming these stressors, you take the first step in managing them, instead of them managing you.

This may sound confusing for those who have never done journaling. You could start small by first writing three achievements and three things you would like to work on. 

Remember, journaling isn’t just about documenting stress; it’s a record of your journey through university life. Think about flipping through those pages later and seeing how you’ve grown. 

student stress

Put up pictures of your family and your dreams in your room to remind you of your goals. Source: AFP

2. Make a vision board 

Look at your vision board daily and you’ll find yourself focusing on the positive parts of your life.

You’ll also be inspired to reach those dreams. If you focus on something important, your visions will manifest themselves into reality in one way or another.

Creating a vision board can be a great way to practise mindfulness to cope with stress head-on. It is a blank canvas for you to fill with all your hopes and dreams. 

Whether it’s photos of your dream job, inspirational quotes, or images of places you want to visit, your vision board becomes a roadmap, guiding you away from stress and helping you focus on your goals. 

Imagine hanging it in your dorm room, where you can see it every morning when you wake up. It is a gentle reminder of the bigger picture, helping you stay motivated during challenging times when you feel overwhelmed by exams or assignments. 

3. Download an app 

Trying out a mindfulness app is a great first step to coping with student stress.

Instead of scrolling on Instagram or TikTok — which, by the way, could be a source of your student stress — why not download an app that will guide you through relaxation and stress reduction exercises? 

These apps offer many tools, from calming meditation sessions to breathing exercises that can be completed in just a few minutes.

With soothing voices and tranquil music, they create a virtual calm atmosphere amid the chaos of your university schedule. 

As a university student, your days are filled with deadlines, classes, and exam prep. Instead of stressing out or panicking, all you have to do is open your mindfulness app and choose a quick meditation session.

Some really good apps are available to help you develop your mindfulness skills. You could try Headspace, Simple Habit and Smiling Minds to help you cope with stress.  

These exercises for your minds range from as short as taking five deep breaths to hour-long sessions.

As you close your eyes and follow the instructions, you’re transported to a serene mental space, far from your stressful university life.

It’s a simple yet powerful way to regain your composure and recharge your mental batteries, making you better equipped to tackle your daily life. 

student stress

While university can be hard, remember to celebrate the positives to keep you focused and happy. Source: AFP

4. Practise gratitude 

Many of us don’t give thanks enough. Yet, it is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to stay motivated and enhance your attitude about a given situation, big or small. 

And research has shown that practising gratitude can improve overall well-being and foster resilience. 

Imagine taking a moment to reflect on what you’re thankful for each day. It could be as small as a sunny day on campus or a kind word from a friend.

As you focus on the good, your worries and anxieties go away, much like dark clouds clearing to reveal a clear blue sky. 

student stress

Yoga is a great way to release the bad energy you may be feeling. Source: AFP

5. Pick up yoga 

Studies show regular yoga practice improves your coordination, reaction time and memory.

Yoga’s focus on breath and simple meditation helps you to connect to the present moment. 

Picture yourself on a yoga mat, stretching your body into various poses, each movement synchronised with the rhythm of your breath. This is perhaps the best possible way to cultivate mindfulness.