Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the world have chosen to teach remotely, meaning students will have very limited access to campus facilities. It is hard to imagine a semester, or perhaps a year, of online school for university students. Often referred to as “the best four years of your life”, higher education is a time not only for learning but for transitioning into an adult as well. Remote instruction means this semester will be a break from standard university life and most likely challenge the mental health of many students in the process.
Dr. Bassam Khoury, a researcher and expert in mental health and mindfulness at McGill University, explains what he sees as the biggest challenges facing students this semester. He highlights how students already report high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression without a global pandemic or societal tension to complicate things. Specifically, this semester, he believes the newest detrimental factors to mental health will be increased social isolation and prolonged, concentrated screen time. An absence of community will prevent some people from engaging in typical daily conversation with their friends. Likewise, there may be less in-person opportunity to vent emotions or to bond over difficult experiences. Dr. Khoury also explains how staring at a screen for hours can cause headaches and reduce the ability to concentrate. Luckily, he also knows how students can prepare for and handle these challenges, by practicing mindfulness.
It turns out that defining mindfulness is not an easy task. Dr. Khoury explains how people often mistake and define mindfulness as meditation only. However, meditation is simply the most well-known practice of mindfulness. He says, “Mindfulness is a concept of awareness, of presence, of acceptance”. Despite the broad definition, there is agreement amongst practitioners and researchers that mindfulness includes awareness and attention to the present moment.
Importantly to Dr. Khoury, mindfulness should be understood as something more than just a simple coping strategy or tool. He believes mindfulness is not like going to the gym, a specific application of movement, but instead is a fundamental aspect of our lives just like the need for movement in general. He explains how mindfulness cultivates awareness of our bodies and how they feel. For example, investigating and observing a feeling of sadness within your body, in the present moment, can help you accept that feeling and ultimately deal with your emotions. Dr. Khoury also emphasizes that awareness is not a “magic pill” that fixes all your problems, but it can allow you deal with them more productively.
Another aspect of mindfulness is the acceptance of uncertainty and that some events are beyond our control. This element is especially important given the unpredictable nature of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the uncharted territory many schools and students are entering this September. Accepting uncertainty can reduce time spent tirelessly fighting emotions and aspects of life that cannot be controlled.
Dr. Khoury shares that students can practice mindfulness through meditation which commonly lasts anywhere between five to forty minutes. However, students don’t have to formally meditate to be mindful. He suggests that a student can take a moment between video lectures to check-in with their body, investigate how it feels, and take a deep breath. In this moment it is important to simply be present with how they feel and try to accept it. This can help improve their attention and concentration on their next activity. Dr. Khoury explains that there are clear links between attention and mindfulness, suggesting the more mindful and aware a person is of their feelings, the more mental resources they have to attend, concentrate, listen, understand, and interact.
Dr. Khoury and his students are currently conducting research on mindfulness and harmful behaviors such as self-injury, substance use, and perfectionism, amongst the student population. He stresses the importance of using strategies such as mindfulness to accept negative emotions brought on by challenges like failing a course or getting into a fight with a friend. He says mindfulness can be used by people who engage in self-injury to deal with these emotions in a healthier way before turning down a more destructive path. Similarly, if a student is predisposed to using substances such as drugs and alcohol to cope with negative emotions, yet has high levels of mindfulness and self-compassion, they are less likely to use those substances or use them in a destructive manner.
To clarify, he explains that self-compassion is “the act of being kind towards oneself” and involves not judging or being overly critical. Accordingly, Dr. Khoury says if a student is low in mindfulness and self-compassion, they are more likely to use substances excessively to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. Overall, he believes dealing with emotions before turning to harmful behaviors like self-injury, substance abuse, and even restrictive or binge eating, is the most important application of mindfulness for students.
Evaluating the effectiveness of mindfulness in clinical and non-clinical populations is a major focus for Dr. Khoury. To study this, his lab uses meta-analysis which is the statistical combination of data from hundreds of studies which allows researchers to be more confident in a given conclusion. According to Dr. Khoury, there is confidence in the effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Interventions, which are mindfulness programs that can include sitting meditation, walking meditation, and even eating meditation in combination with psychoeducation and group discussion. He has also noted a robust and consistent effect on stress, anxiety, and depression in populations including students.
The bottom line is that taking care of your own mental health will be more important than ever this semester. Mindfulness is an effective and simple way to address anxieties that will inevitably arise over the coming months and foster resilience.
Below is a list of three resources that anyone can use to further educate themselves on mindfulness:
1. Dr. Bassam Khoury’s McGill Mindfulness Research Lab: www.mcgill.ca/mmrl/
2. Mindful.org: www.mindful.org
3. Headspace: www.headspace.com