Mindfulness matters in higher education – to wisdom

April 4, 2019 at 3:55 PM
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Georgina Breihof UA ’16, ’18 and Jim Stellar


Georgina and I wrote a blog together on the value of mentoring to both of us. We were also driven by the (surprisingly) published finding of better engagement, later in life, in the workforce. The formation of that relationship opportunity seemed to us to be, in part, a product of the non-verbal communication that can exist between a mentor and a mentee.  But the mentoring and the non-verbal communication itself goes to a much deeper issue of how unconscious decision-making brain circuits complement our conscious decision making, and that interaction may be nowhere more important that in the phenomenon of mindfulness.


My interest in mindfulness began back in the late 1970s when I joined the Psychology Department of Harvard University and found one of its early researchers, Ellen Langer, there.  She had just published a paper showing that increasing mindfulness in nursing home patients, even by just giving them a plant for which to care, increased their health and life-span.


Today, that “old” story has new life in many ways, but the one that interests us here is in reducing anxiety in high school and college students, so that they can be happier and better focus on their learning.  Georgina has a MS in Educational Psychology and is interested in this topic from personal experience.


Georgina, can you tell us what drives your interest?


I am interested in the use of mindfulness in classrooms to improve the well-being of elementary and high school students. My interest in the practice of mindfulness began in the Psychotherapy class that I took at the University at Albany. There are many definitions of mindfulness, but the one that I think resonates best with my interest comes from Psychology Today, where they list three definitions. Combined, they define mindfulness as, “letting go of taking things for granted, returning to the present moment, and the self-regulation of attention of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” In this way, mindfulness is a meditation based therapeutic practice that originated from Buddhists.


According to a recent study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, around 20% of adolescents worldwide experience a mental health problem within a 12-month time frame. Most of these mental health problems stem from low socioeconomic status, social isolation, exposure to violence and lack of social support, and around 50% of these mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 years old. The most prevalent mental illnesses that are seen with adolescents include anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and depression These mental illnesses are then shown to present challenges including stigma, isolation and discrimination which make it difficult for them to focus in school and attain good grades. There has been an increasing interest in the health benefits of mindfulness therapy within the past decade. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology focused on the use of kindness-based meditation (a type of mindfulness therapy) on health and well-being. The researchers use 22 studies that were published between 2010 and 2014 and all included participants were adults. They reported that, overall, mindfulness is effective in decreasing self-reported depression, increasing compassion for others, and increase positive emotions, therefore increasing overall well-being. While this information is important for showing the proven positive effects of mindfulness therapy, the focus was strictly based on adult mental health, not children and adolescents.


More recently, researchers have begun studying the effects of using mindfulness within school districts to reduce stress and improve well-being with children and adolescents. While research is still limited, a meta-analysis conducted in 2018 was done to examine the specific effects and moderators that contribute to school-based mindfulness interventions for mental health. Overall, mindfulness was shown to be effective, with larger effects seen with adolescents in pretest-posttest interventions compared to control groups.


Research has repeatedly shown mindfulness is affective in improving adult’s mental health and well-being, and is increasingly showing that mindfulness in schools is effective as well. As discusses before, 50% of mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and tend to stem from low socioeconomic status, social isolation, exposure to violence and lack of social support. The purpose of using mindfulness therapy is to return to the present moment, and self-regulate one’s feelings and emotions. Therefore, the use of mindfulness in elementary schools may be able to help these students to better control their feelings, and to focus on the present moment. If a child is able to use mindfulness in the classroom before an assignment, it may be easier for them to just focus on the present moment (their assignment), and not worry as much about problems occurring in their home, therefore, increasing their academic achievement.


How do you think this drives wisdom?


I think that the use of mindfulness drives wisdom because it is something that you can not only master, but look back and see the changes that occurred before practicing to after practicing for many years. When someone first begins practicing mindfulness can be very frustrating. It is difficult to focus on the present alone, and not worry about the future or dwell on the past. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes. You begin to naturally pass unwanted thoughts through your mind, and solely focus on the present moment. After practicing for many years, I believe that mindfulness starts to come naturally. This is around when mindfulness practice becomes wisdom. You begin to see your life through a different lens that is more understanding, lets go of the past, and focuses on the present. You begin to notice small things in life that you wouldn’t have before. For example, when walking to work, instead of thinking about the errands you have to complete after work, or the dreadful meetings that you have to attend, you’ll start to notice the leaves changing color on the trees, or the smell of fresh cut grass. I believe that mindfulness as a wisdom can also affect the way that you perceive other people, as well as your interactions with them.


Merriam-Webster dictionary defines wisdom as “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; good sense; generally accepted belief.” I would consider mindfulness to be a wisdom because, while it affects you in your daily life, you can’t exactly explain to others how. You’re attitude on life changes, and you can tell the difference from before practicing mindfulness, but can’t necessarily teach someone else how to do so in a classroom. It comes with patience, practice, and time.


Tying back to the neuroscience underlying this blog, the kinds of emotional changes that we are discussing here belong to those evolutionary older brain circuits that help us to form conclusions about what is good for us (e.g. where to sleep, what to eat) extending back to before evolution developed the brain circuits that gave us words. Yet, according to Gazzaniga, our conscious, verbal, symbolic logic reasoning minds are typically unaware of this other brain system.  So, one possibility is that mindfulness training not only makes us more aware of ourselves and our environment, but also deepens the integration between the conscious and unconscious parts of our decision-making allowing us to see the value of things, not just their price  as in that famous Oscar Wilde quote.

The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

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