Mindfulness meditation is very popular at the moment. Maybe I am just attuned to it because of my profession, but I seem to be hearing about it everywhere. It is touted as a cure for everything: negative mood, lack of productivity, shitty relationships, poor leadership skills, lack of resilience.
I meditate. I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for a few months now. I don’t think it has made me a remarkably different or better person, but I find it interesting. That might be due more to the teacher (I use this app) than the practice itself. I find Sam Harris’ way of explaining the practice to be very curiousity inducing, so I am sticking with it. My instincts tell me that meditation is like exercise. You need to commit to it over the long-term in order to get consistent value from it. To be honest, that is my view on just about all beneficial lifestyle changes.
Here at Flinders, the Health, Counselling and Disability Team and the OASIS team offer a range of mindfulness-based group programs: Mindfulness for Academic Success, Mindful Yoga and Meditation with Dave. We offer these programs on the basis of demand and expertise. For example, we know that students experience stress and this is typically intertwined with their studies. More students experience stress than we can possibly see one-to-one, so mindfulness-based group programs provde a vehicle for reaching more students. We are also confident that mindfulness practice does have a positive impact on stress, this having been one of the primary uses of it in the literature.
It is pleasing therefore to find a high quality study of the impacts of mindfulnes-based group programs that shows positive effects for tertiary students, consistent with our observations.
Galante et al. (2018) evaluated an 8-week mindfulness-based group program with university students in the UK. They were particularly interested in whether they could increase resilience in students.
Resilience is the ability to cope with, and recover from difficulties/adversities. It can be difficult to study resilience because we need to capture individuals at the point at which they are dealing with something difficult. Given that it is difficult to predict when many life adversities will happen, this is a challenge for researchers.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) we can predict the timing of at least one source of stress for students: exams. Exams occur at the same time each year, and are universally experienced as stressful for students. Exams are a necessary stressor, because they put pressure on students to learn the material, and be able to show they can retrieve it when asked. Testing is a fundamental part of the learning process. I can’t see a time when we don’t use testing in one form or another as a part of the education process.
Galante et al. (2018) wanted to see if particpation in a mindfulness-based group program could reduce the levels of distress experienced by students during their exam periods. Could mindfulness skills, taught in a group program, give students the tools necessary to be resilient to the negative psychological impacts of exams?
They randomised 616 students to either receive a ‘Mindfulness Skills for Students (MSS)’ program or usual care (i.e. access to university counselling service). They measured distress and wellbeing at the begining of the program (baseline), the end of the program (post-intervention) and during the students’ exam period.
The MSS program was based on the book ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world‘. Students were taught to meditate, encouraged to practice it daily, and then shown how to apply the practice to their study, decision making and relationships. The intervention load was significant. There were 8 x 75-90 minute group sessions, along with daily homework of between 8-25 minutes per day.
453 of the original 616 (74%) saw the study through to the final assessment during the exam period. Consistent with their hypotheses, the researchers found that students in the MSS group showed a reduction in stress scores from the beginning of the course to the final assessment. They were actually less distressed during the exam period than when they started the program. In contrast, the usual care showed a more expected increase in distress scores during the exam period. In terms of wellbeing, whilst the usual care group showed a reduction in wellbeing from baseline to the exam period, the wellbeing of the MSS group remained stable. Both are good evidence of a resilience effect.
Did the students in the MSS group do better at their exams? The answer to that question was nuanced. More students in the MSS group got higher exam scores than in the usual care group – good news. But more students in the MSS group also got lower scores – huh?. Researchers hypothesised that some students who would have otherwise dropped out or avoided exams, ended up doing them, meaning more low scoring students engaged in exams in the MSS group.
The exam scores findings were part of a collection of findings/observations that need to be further looked at. For example, only 59% of the MSS assigned students completed more than half of the course (i.e. attended 4+ sessions). It is not clear why this is the case, although it was suggested that many skills-based programs do experience problems with full attendance. There is a positive here though. It suggests a relatively small dose of mindfulness training can still elicit a significant impact on participants’ distress and wellbeing.
Where to from here?
I’ve said previously that the popularity of mindfulness meditation is a mix of science and marketing. There is certainly a growing evidence-base sugesting it might have value across a range of areas, but marketing enthusiasm tends to exxagerate just how beneficial it might be. Hence the need for ongoing high quality trials.
The study by Galante et al. was a large high quality trial of a mindfulness-based group program for university students that found positive impacts on resilience against exam stress. As they concluded “In conclusion, our study suggests that offering openly accessible mindfulness interventions aimed at the well student population, separate from specific mental health services, is a useful addition to robust clinical interventions delivered by university counselling services.”
Thankfully, we do here at Flinders. So if this article has got you thinking about whether you might explore mindfulness-based skills to help with your studies, consider one of the following:
Mindfulness for Academic Success – www.flinders.edu.au/mindfulacademic
Mindful Yoga – www.flinders.edu.au/mindfulyoga
Meditation for relaxation and stress relief – https://oasis.flinders.edu.au/meditation-for-relaxation-and-stress-relief/
If online is more your thing, consider this course over at Future Learn – https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/mindfulness-wellbeing-performance