For young adults, mindfulness habits for life and the promise of better mental and physical health
PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] “It’s a tough time to be a young adult,” say most young adults themselves, as do those who teach and work with them.
Eric Loucks, associate professor and director of Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, interacts with young adults while teaching through Brown’s Master of Mindfulness in Public Health. He says young people frequently talk about economic stress, job uncertainty, strained social media relationships and loneliness, among other concerns.
But Loucks suggests that mindfulness can be an effective way to help them (and people of all ages) overcome challenges and build habits that can prepare them for a healthier life. In a new book, “The Mindful College Student: How to Succeed, Boost Well-Being, and Build the Life You Want at University & Beyond,” he provides information on clinical research-backed mindfulness training to help young adults develop skills to enhance well-being.
The book is based on the Mindfulness-Based College program from Loucks to Brown. Launched in 2015, the non-credit program grew out of a credited mindfulness course at Brown, and a study showed his approach improved health outcomes for participating students. Loucks said he was encouraged to see that a tailored mindfulness program could help students reduce stress and symptoms of depression and improve sleep quality, physical activity levels and well-being. – to be general.
“One of the reasons I’m a teacher is that I really enjoy working with young adults,” Loucks said. “But an in-person program that lasts two and a half hours a week for eight weeks is not available to many people. The book is a way to make mindfulness training much more accessible to young adults — and essentially serves as a way to support the next generation.
“The Mindful College Student”, published by New Harbinger Publications, was released on the day. Here, Loucks answered questions about the power of mindfulness.
Q: What are the most pressing challenges facing young adults today?
Hundreds of young adults went through my mindfulness training program at Brown, and during the process of writing the book, I interviewed a few dozen of them. One of the things that comes up most often is economic stress. Tuition fees and housing prices have exceeded inflation for many years, and there is less job security than before. Recently, the pandemic has made it harder to network or explore new opportunities.
Another thing students raised was their relationship with digital media – they use it in many ways, for example to keep in touch with friends and family, but they recognize its addictive properties. Young adults shared that social media sometimes exacerbates mental health issues, especially around body image and eating disorders. Then there’s loneliness – it’s something that young adults don’t always talk about until it finally reaches crisis levels. Many young adults have recently left their families, they don’t have a long-term romantic partner, and recently, due to COVID-related restrictions on mass gatherings, they haven’t been able to see as many other people. Research shows that young adulthood is the second loneliest period of life, after old age.
Beyond the students I spoke to, we saw an increase in anxiety and depression in this age group over time. One of the saddest things to me is that death rates in the United States have actually increased among young adults over the past 20 years despite declining mortality in other demographic groups. It has a lot to do with suicide, drug overdoses, and conditions related to death from despair.
Q: What definition of mindfulness do you use in this book?
One of the most common definitions is paying attention on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment. It has two components: one is present moment awareness, including awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. The other element is the quality of that awareness – for example, it is non-judgmental and has curiosity, friendliness, gentleness, or acceptance of “this is the way things are right now”. When we think about experience in this way, then we become like objective scientists, seeing what data comes through our senses and being there with it and seeing how to skillfully respond to it.
Q: How can mindfulness help students who have mental health issues they face?
Let’s start with this: in translations, the word for mindfulness (sati) shares the same root as the Pali word for arrow (Sarah). Like an arrow, mindfulness is seen to be quick, in that it reminds us of our wisdom in the moment. So we remember to bring our wisdom – from our parents, from the books, from the sages around us – to the present moment.
As an example that might be relevant for young adults: if we are stressed by the high cost of living in an expensive city, can we sensitize our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations to economic stress and see what result? Is what stands out perhaps the idea of looking for opportunities in other parts of the country that are cheaper, as many young people have done? Then, considering other cheaper but still promising places to live, maybe the stress we felt starts to lessen. Or maybe the wisdom at this time is to use stress as the wind in our sails and learn to use the wind to change direction. Maybe we exploit stress to find ways to live creatively: apply for a job that offers higher pay and matches our values, motivate ourselves to come up with a creative idea that generates income, or another way to afford to live in the expensive city we enjoy. So you can see how mindfulness can be harnessed based on what’s going on in our environment.
Q: How does mindfulness work to reduce stress?
There are a few important mechanisms: self-awareness, attention control, and emotion regulation. Mindfulness meditation can help with all three. In self-awareness, for example, we learn to know if eating, drinking, or smoking something makes us restless, including before, during, and after. In attention control, we place our attention somewhere that really helps us experience the full experience of eating, drinking, or smoking that thing, and then direct our attention to the action on skillful next steps such as engaging in a more rewarding activity that makes us feel better overall. And then sometimes, mindfulness training helps us detect stressors earlier, before they get out of hand, and then take action by bringing our wisdom to that moment to respond skillfully.
Q: How did you come up with the plan described in the book?
The program is grounded in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed by mindfulness scientist and teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn over 40 years ago and is one of the most researched mindfulness programs available. We research MBSR at Brown and have an MBSR Teaching Certificate program offered by the School of Professional Studies. I took the MBSR practice and adapted it for young adults, based on their feedback. I also focused on physical health. We took this through a clinical trial and then tried to introduce some of the key concepts that were found to be useful and useful for the participants. In the future, we plan to do another clinical trial specifically measuring the usefulness of the program’s book format to help address some of these issues.