By Natasha Kaufman
Leaving the security of home and adjusting to new-found independence can be an exciting transition. It can also be unsettling. It is vital to know how to deal with challenges and triumphs emotionally. Practicing mindfulness can equip you with the skills to do this.
Why be mindful?
For students, the fast pace of life, the pressure to succeed and get a job, and the anonymous and isolating aspects of communication through social media make mindfulness relevant.
Like our bodies, which need to be nourished with a balanced diet and regular exercise, we also need to replenish our minds. Just as a tightly toned physique isn’t achieved overnight, neither is a mindful state. Sometimes what is happening in our subconscious spurs us to behave in a certain manner. If we know ourselves, we can understand better how our minds operate.
The first time we try to meditate it may feel frustrating, dull and pointless. Nevertheless, with patience and perseverance, what initially feels like a chore will eventually feel natural and effortless. When we consistently practice mindfulness, it can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and improve concentration, clarity and self-control.
What’s really going on inside your head?
Everyone develops differently and at different times. The growth of the brain depends on many factors: gender, biological or genetic conditions as well as cultural, environmental and social experiences. Yet the framework and functions may work in similar ways for healthy young adults.
You don’t need to know exactly how each part of the brain performs, but having some insight into just a few key components may shed some light on your behaviours, thoughts and actions.
Your prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is linked with reasoning, decision making, planning and social behaviour. It doesn’t fully develop until you reach your mid-twenties and sometimes, before it has entirely formed, decision making may seem hard. Instead you may rely more on the limbic system, the part of your brain that is responsible for emotions, memories and arousal. As a result, you may not always think before you speak or act because your reactions are based on feelings rather than reason. However, this impulsiveness changes once the prefrontal cortex is fully linked with other parts of the brain. This increases your ability to empathize, choose, resolve, plan effectively and form strategies.
The amygdala (which is within the limbic system) is the part of the brain responsible for memory, impulses, survival instincts and emotions. Like the prefrontal cortex, it doesn’t fully develop until your mid- twenties. You may find it hard to process emotions since this is the part of the brain that helps to regulate and control feelings. Instead of using the prefrontal cortex to rationalize your responses, you may find that you respond to situations from an instinctual or ‘gut’ feeling because the amygdala overrides the rational part of the brain. Just as the amygdala can lead to you acting spontaneously or taking risks, it also encourages you to seek new experiences, and to be independent and creative.
During puberty, you may have found that everyone was constantly mentioning the word ‘hormones’ or talking about being ‘hormonal’. You may have used it as a legitimate excuse for your mood swings, actions or emotions. Even when puberty has officially passed, these chemicals in your body still like to work their magic and can have a dramatic effect on how you feel, think and act. Here are the main ones.
Cortisol controls a variety of processes throughout the body, including the regulation of the immune system and metabolism. It is also responsible for how the body responds to stress since it is released during moments of pressure, anxiety or fear. If you frequently feel stressed, large amounts of cortisol will be released in the body, which can have negative effects on how you sleep, eat and function day-to-day. Too much cortisol can be disruptive to your mental and physical health. You can naturally lower cortisol levels by sleeping more, eating regular meals rather than snacking, walking and exposing yourself to sunlight daily.
Serotonin is a chemical messenger (known as a neurotransmitter) that sends information throughout your brain and body. It helps maintain mood stability, sleeping patterns and digestion. It is also known as the ‘happy hormone’ and flows through our bodies when we feel loved, important and valued. If we are lacking in this vital hormone, it can lead to feelings of aggression, edginess and restlessness, and low mood. Sleep patterns can also be affected if serotonin levels aren’t right, and you may crave more sugars and carbs. Fortunately, lifestyle changes such as exercising, meditating and eating a good diet can boost serotonin levels and help you feel at ease and content.
Dopamine is also a neurotransmitter that sends signals to nerve cells in the body. This chemical can influence your emotions, motor skills and your feelings of pleasure and pain. There are many dopamine path- ways in the brain, and one of these contributes to reward-motivated behaviour.
If we anticipate a reward owing to our actions, dopamine levels in the brain are increased, and this can make us feel particularly good about ourselves. The release of dopamine is a pleasurable feeling that can give us a buzz. Due to the feel-good factor of dopamine, it can tempt you to be courageous, adventurous and a risk taker.
However, dopamine deficiency can occur if we consume too much caffeine, alcohol, or sugar. Stress can also deplete dopamine. Low dopamine levels can cause fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to experience joy, forgetfulness, insomnia and mood swings. There are ways that dopamine levels can rebalance themselves. These include exercise, exposure to more sunlight (for vitamin D) and taking certain vitamins such as B5 and B6.
The main job of the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin is to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’. In times of stress, this can cause us to act quickly or with intense vigour. Faced with highly competitive or
threatening situations, your adrenalin really
kicks in. You will know when adrenalin is released because your heart rate and breathing will speed up. This feeling can make you feel energized, excited and alert. During exam season it is usually adrenalin that keeps you going and gives you the extra drive and ability to work longer hours. When you regularly practice mindfulness meditation, you can develop and grow the brain to benefit your mental wellbeing.
Excerpted from Mindfulness for Students.
Natasha Kaufman teaches English and drama in a mixed comprehensive school in London, UK. She is the author of Mindfulness for Students.