Meditation class helps student stay mindful of stress

Mindfulness mediation” is a term talked about everywhere from drum circles to corporate gatherings. It is a practice in which one attempts to be observant and non-judgmental of his or her thoughts, emotions and sensations in order to focus awareness of the present moment. 

There are now more than 20 million Americans who practice meditation in order to reduce stress, pain and anxiety, according to a National Health Interview Survey. There has also been research that suggests mindfulness meditation can have physical, tangible benefits. 

Now a twice-weekly group at the USF Counseling Center is bringing mindfulness to USF students.

Amanda Schwait, a USF mindfulness meditation group leader and post-doctoral fellow at the Counseling Center, said that the sessions offer college students a time to set aside for relaxation, which can often be rare with the conflicting pressures of student and social life. 

“Students have so many stressors in their day-to-day: a constant stream of homework and social interactions and social media,” she said. “The group allows those students to just come in and be really focused and aware of what’s going on inside of them.” 

Schwait also said that the practice could influence the rest of students’ lives outside of meditation. She said, “There’s a lot of concerns and a lot stressors that happen developmentally during college, and I think (meditation) allows people to just slow down a little bit, maybe be able to take some of the non-judgmental mindfulness and awareness and just plug it into the rest of their day.”

Diego Hernandez, a USF assistant professor with a doctorate in psychology, has practiced mindfulness meditation since his college years. 

“When I was in undergrad, I was a triple major with a Greek minor,” he said. “I was involved in a lot of activities and a lot of stress, and I decided to reduce it to a double major to finish … but it’s one of those things that I found beneficial for relaxing and regaining my focus.” 

Cecile Lengacher, a USF professor at the College of Nursing working with the Moffitt Cancer Center, also practices informal mindfulness meditation as much as several times a week. 

She said it has decreased stress and anxiety in her personal life, along with increasing her ability to focus. Lengacher’s experience has paralleled the positive results seen in her research.

“It makes you focus,” she said. “If you have a conversation, it makes you focus on the conversation.”

Lengacher also said mindfulness meditation can be either informal when incorporated into daily life, or formal, such as in a class setting. Schwait said she informs USF students of both aspects of meditation.

“We call it a meditation practice because, just like anything, you have to practice,” she said. “That could just be looking at the sky while you’re walking to class, or if somebody says something annoying, before you react, taking a deep breath and paying attention to what thoughts are coming up to you. I definitely talk about how you don’t have to sit silently for half an hour to be practicing.” 

Lengacher said meditation also decreases stress hormone levels in the body, leading to a decrease in harmful inflammation. 

“If we can decrease our stress hormones, this will actually make us more healthy,” she said. “One thing to think about when being mindful and paying attention, it will decrease your stress.” 

Mindfulness meditation also tackles stress by blending traditional Buddhist methods with non-religious stress relief, Hernandez said.

“It is more secular; the mindfulness tends to take the core teachings of Buddhist philosophy and puts them into a practical exercise,” he said. 

Hernandez said the practice is accessible for students who still feel that it conflicts with their religion, suggesting they try contemplative scripture that relates to their own practice. 

“One of the great things is it’s not centering your thoughts on Buddha,” he said. “It’s centering your thoughts on your own experience. That part is between you and your deity.”

Hernandez also said mindfulness meditation allows those who practice to disconnect from a consumption-based society. 

“It’s a way to kind of get underneath all the clutter and to let all of the clutter go,” he said. “To just kind of focus on who you are, where you’re at and what’s going on.” 

Hernandez said meditation allows those who practice to tap into something deeper. 

“It’s something that gets us in touch with the core human experience,” he said.

The drop-in “Mindfulness Meditation” sessions are held in the USF Counseling Center on Tuesdays from 3-4 p.m. and Wednesdays from 2-3 p.m.