University of Wisconsin–Madison

Ease your mind by being mindful

A college student’s mind is constantly in motion. There are classes, homework, a social life, work, and more. But there’s growing research showing that we can all benefit from taking a few moments each day to, well, live in the moment. To simply stop, breathe, ease our mind, and better understand our emotions and needs.

A group of students walk amid snow-dusted trees along a lakeshore path on Picnic Point in winter.
Taking time to stop, breathe, and live in the moment can help cultivate well-being. (Photo: Jeff Miller / UW–Madison)

Broadly, this growing field is known as mindfulness, and UW–Madison has become a leader in its evidence-based research and practice. The university’s Center for Healthy Minds, founded by world-renowned neuroscientist Richard Davidson, is dedicated to cultivating well-being across populations through a scientific understanding of the mind.

Matthew Hirshberg, a postdoctoral research associate at the center, works with fifth-grade teachers and their students on mindfulness training. He has seen the impact mindfulness has made — both on others and himself. Badger Parent talked with him to learn more about how mindfulness and meditative practice may benefit college students.

Of course you’re busy, too. But take a deep breath. You can be busy later. Take a moment for your mind while benefiting from his expertise. Your mind — and your student — may thank you.

What do we really mean by being “mindful”?

There are two ways to answer. The most common definition of secular mindfulness comes from [researcher] Jon Kabat-Zinn and has four parts: paying attention, on purpose, to present-moment experience, with an attitude of nonjudgment or acceptance.

Pragmatically, mindfulness is knowing what is happening in our minds and bodies and being able to experience our present-moment reality at least for a minute as it is, without needing to change or alter it in any way.

How has mindfulness helped you? 

I started meditating in my late teens when I did not feel at all at home in my own skin. Mindfulness practice helped turn down the volume on my self-critical, self-judgmental thoughts, but most importantly, it helped me to see that they were just thoughts — so that when they came up, I became more and more able to simply observe them come and go, and over time they began to have little or no effect.

Any tips for those of us just starting to practice being mindful? 

Although individuals differ in their natural ability to be mindful — using the definitions above — mindfulness meditation practice is essential to training the mind to pay attention, on purpose, to what is happening now, with acceptance. So to begin, start by each day doing even a few minutes of intentional mindfulness practice.

How do we know we’re doing it right? 

With any skill, it is important to be sure we are carrying out the skill in the intended way, lest we reinforce a bad habit. There are a number of good mindfulness classes and there are apps that are more accessible. There are also plenty of good free guided audio practices online that beginners can listen to learn the basics. Mindfulness is a radically different way than how we normally approach our experience, though, so it is helpful to be able to interact with a mindfulness teacher so they can answer and clarify questions.

In what ways can being mindful benefit students?

The limited evidence available suggests that mindfulness training may support student mental health (e.g., reduce anxiety, increase mindfulness) and improve executive functions (e.g., attention, working memory).

Students are busy. Say they have a big test tomorrow. How can making time for mindfulness (in addition to studying) help? 

One way making even a little time for mindfulness can help is by reducing stress and anxiety. Stress tends to reduce performance, so by reducing stress, we may set a context for better learning. Anecdotally, many of the teens I teach mindfulness to have trouble sleeping and find mindfulness practice helps them sleep better. Better sleep is related to a host of health benefits.

There’s often an emphasis on physical training and exercise rather than on our mind. How do we get people to reconsider their mental well-being instead of thinking of it as something “extra”? Why is there less emphasis on training our mind?

Physical health is extremely important and regular exercise is a powerful intervention. But if we experience something difficult and are having trouble letting go of it — a very common occurrence — physical exercise will be of limited support. We need to be able to work with our own mind and experience in a different way — mindfulness is a different way of working with experience that supports well-being all of the time but may be especially supportive when we are experiencing difficulty.

—Käri Knutson


For more resources: