This fall, a record 21.8 million students are estimated to be attending American colleges and universities. Many are leaving home for the first time, and they’re exploring a new environment, forging new relationships, doing their own laundry and experiencing "the real world."
More than a few of those students will suffer homesickness, which can turn into depression, low motivation, insomnia, stomach aches and loneliness -- and their dropout rates are three times higher than non-homesick students, according to one 1993 study.
According to Kristin Neff, a University of Texas psychologist and author of the 2011 book Self-Compassion, the three features of self-compassion are kindness toward oneself, a sense of common humanity with others and mindfulness -- that is, awareness and acceptance of your own feelings. Her research has found that each of these components buffer people against negative reactions to undesired events, like failure, humiliation and rejection -- all situations that are pretty common during the first year of college.
Researchers Meredith Terry, Mark Leary and Sneha Mehta hypothesized that freshmen who treat themselves especially gently when things are going badly (self-kindness), recognize that homesickness is a nearly universal experience that indicates nothing peculiar about them (common humanity) and face their feelings with equanimity (mindfulness) are better able to avoid that unhappy longing to run back home.
They surveyed 119 high school graduates about their capacity for self-compassion, as well as their depression levels, tendencies toward homesickness and satisfaction with their grades, social lives and choice of university. They surveyed the same group a second time, a few weeks before the end of their first semester of college.
As predicted, the researchers did find that students who could be kind to themselves (as opposed to self-critical) were significantly less prone to homesickness and depression. They also found self-compassionate students were more satisfied with their social lives and choice of college. When students low in self-compassion disliked their social lives, they became much more homesick and disappointed with their new school. When things were going well for students, self-compassion became much less important.
However, self-compassion did not seem help students as much when they faced problems in the classroom. The researchers speculate that this may arise from the fact that the students are attending a highly selective college and "most probably believed that their academic success was largely in their own hands and felt reasonably confident that they would eventually do well." These same beliefs might not have applied to their social lives, where the students might have felt less confident than they did in the classroom.
Overall, these results demonstrate that those with higher levels of self-compassion are able to combat and manage difficult situations more effectively than those with low self-compassion. High self-compassion students were less depressed, less homesick and less dissatisfied with their life at their university.
These results lend support to self-compassion interventions at colleges and universities, which could be integrated into programs that help students deal with social, academic and emotional challenges during their first year at college. During a period with college admissions is more competitive than ever, a self-compassionate approach may help freshmen explore a new place without fear of falling short of expectations, becoming depressed or losing out on opportunities.
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It Lowers Stress -- Literally
Research published just last month in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it's also linked with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/31/mindfulness-meditation-cortisol-stress-levels_n_2965197.html" target="_blank">decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol</a>.
It Lets Us Get To Know Our True Selves
It lets us get to know our true selves. Mindfulness can help us see beyond those rose-colored glasses when we need to really <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/19/mindfulness-understand-personalities_n_2886102.html" target="_blank">objectively analyze ourselves</a>. A study in the journal Psychological Science shows that mindfulness can help us conquer common "blind spots," which can amplify or diminish our own flaws beyond reality.
It Can Make Your Grades Better
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that college students <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/mindfulness-testing-focus-reading-comprehension_n_2957146.html" target="_blank">who were trained in mindfulness</a> performed better on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE, and also experienced improvements in their working memory. "Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with widereaching consequences," the researchers wrote in the Psychological Science study.
It Could Help Our Troops
The U.S. Marine Corps is in the process of seeing how mindfulness meditation training can improve troops' performance and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/marine-corps-mindfulness-meditation_n_2526244.html" target="_blank">ability to handle -- and recover from -- stress</a>.
It Could Help People With Arthritis
A 2011 study in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease shows that even though mindfulness training may not help to lessen pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis, it <em>could</em> help to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/28/mindfulness-meditation-rheumatoid-arthritis_n_1171685.html" target="_blank">lower their stress and fatigue</a>.
It Changes The Brain In A Protective Way
University of Oregon researchers found that integrative body-mind training -- which is a meditation technique -- can actually result in brain changes that may be protective against mental illness. The meditation practice was linked with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/15/mindfulness-meditation-brain-integrative-body-mind-training_n_1594803.html" target="_blank">increased signaling connections in the brain</a>, something called axonal density, as well as increased protective tissue (myelin) around the axons in the anterior cingulate brain region.
It Works As The Brain's "Volume Knob"
Ever wondered why mindfulness meditation can make you feel more focused and zen? It's because it helps the brain to have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/mindfulness-meditation-brain_n_2680087.html" target="_blank">better control over processing pain and emotions</a>, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms (which play a role in what senses our minds are attentive to), according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
It Makes Music Sound Better
Mindfulness meditation improves our <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/06/mindfulness-meditation-music-engagement_n_2623292.html" target="_blank">focused engagement in music</a>, helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we're listening to, according to a study in the journal Psychology of Music.
It Helps Us Even When We're Not Actively Practicing It
You don't have to actually be meditating for it to still <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/15/meditation-emotional-processing-emotions-brain_n_2123753.html" target="_blank">benefit your brain's emotional processing</a>. That's the finding of a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which shows that the amygdala brain region's response to emotional stimuli is changed by meditation, and this effect occurs even when a person isn't actively meditating.
It Has Four Elements That Help Us In Different Ways
The health benefits of mindfulness can be boiled <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/mindfulness-meditation-health_n_1070101.html#slide=309243" target="_blank">down to four elements</a>, according to a Perspectives on Psychological Science study: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion and regulation of attention.
It Could Help Your Doctor Be Better At His/Her Job
Doctors, listen up: Mindfulness meditation could help you <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/mindfulness-meditation-doctors_n_1456870.html" target="_blank">better care for your patients</a>. Research from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that doctors who are trained in mindfulness meditation are less judgmental, more self-aware and better listeners when it comes to interacting with patients
It Makes You A Better Person
Sure, we love all the things meditation does for us. But it could also benefit people we interact with, by <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/02/meditation-compassion-do-good_n_2993793.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living" target="_blank">making us more compassionate</a>, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities found that meditation is linked with more virtuous, "do-good" behavior.
It Could Make Going Through Cancer Just A Little Less Stressful
Research from the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine shows that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/02/art-mindfulness-stress-relief-breast-cancer-patients_n_2219268.html" target="_blank">mindfulness coupled with art therapy</a> can successfully decrease stress symptoms among women with breast cancer. And not only that, but imaging tests show that it is actually linked with brain changes related to stress, emotions and reward.
It Could Help The Elderly Feel Less Lonely
Loneliness among seniors can be dangerous, in that it's known to raise risks for a number of health conditions. But researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that mindfulness meditation helped to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/29/mindfulness-meditation-loneliness-elderly_n_1702112.html" target="_blank">decrease these feelings of loneliness</a> among the elderly, <em>and</em> boost their health by reducing the expression of genes linked with inflammation.
It Could Make Your Health Care Bill A Little Lower
Not only will your health benefit from mindfulness meditation training, but your wallet might, too. Research in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21879945" target="_blank">practicing Transcendental Meditation</a> is linked with lower yearly doctor costs, compared with people who don't practice the meditation technique.
It Comes In Handy During Cold Season
Aside from <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/cold-flu-prevention-natural-immune-boosters_n_2474430.html" target="_blank">practicing good hygiene</a>, mindfulness meditation and exercise could l<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/meditation-flu-cold-symptoms-mindfulness-exercise_n_1671543.html" target="_blank">essen the nasty effects of colds</a>. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that people who engage in the practices miss fewer days of work from acute respiratory infections, and also experience a shortened duration and severity of symptoms.
It Lowers Depression Risk Among Pregnant Women
As many as one in five pregnant women will experience depression, but those who are at <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/12/mindfulness-yoga-depression-pregnancy_n_1760207.html" target="_blank">especially high risk for depression</a> may benefit from some mindfulness yoga. "Research on the impact of mindfulness yoga on pregnant women is limited but encouraging," study researcher Dr. Maria Muzik, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "This study builds the foundation for further research on how yoga may lead to an empowered and positive feeling toward pregnancy."
It Also Lowers Depression Risk Among Teens
Teaching teens how to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/mindfulness-in-schools-re_n_2884436.html" target="_blank">practice mindfulness through school programs</a> could help them experience less stress, anxiety and depression, according to a study from the University of Leuven.
It Supports Your Weight-Loss Goals
Trying to shed a few pounds to get to a healthier weight? Mindfulness could be your best friend, according to a survey of psychologists conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association. Mindfulness training was considered an "excellent" or "good" <a href="http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2013/02/lose-weight-your-way/index.htm" target="_blank">strategy for weight loss</a> by seven out of 10 psychologists in the survey.
It Helps You Seep Better
We saved the best for last! A University of Utah study found that mindfulness training can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can <em>also</em> help us sleep better at night. “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was <a href="http://huffingtonpost.menshealthmags.com/2013/03/11/mindfulness-emotional-stability-sleep_n_2836954.html" target="_blank">associated with lower activation at bedtime</a>, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress," study researcher Holly Rau said in a statement.