College 101: Major in Yourself


With schools opening across the US this month, parents and kids are scrambling to get ready with the right books, clothes and skills. If you’re preparing for your first year in college, the planning part can be even harder—you’re basically guessing at the new friends you’ll make, the activities you’ll be involved in and the lifestyle you’ll be leading on your college campus.

I remember my niece, Carina, working hard to be completely prepared for her first year of college at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She was assigned to a triple room (read: tiny double with an extra bunk bed squished in), so space was at a premium. Using her graduation money, she purchased a sturdy vintage bike, a new comforter cover (a neutral grey design on white was a good choice), and a set of plastic drawers filled with toiletries, towels, and study supplies. And then there were the clothes.

A diligent student, she even watched YouTube videos about getting along with roommates in a small space, adjusting to campus life, and study skills.

“I definitely don’t like going into situations unprepared,” she says. “I like to know what I’m getting into.”

How much of this advance planning did she actually use?

Carina notes that going to college is portrayed as a definable experience—but in actuality it’s so individualized you can’t guess what it will be like in advance. You can’t prepare for it with a simple checklist.

“I learned that when going to college—like life in general—there’s not a whole lot you can plan,” says Carina, now 19 and a college sophomore. “I learned that you don’t have to know everything—you just have to be able to adapt.”

What Carina did find useful was having an open attitude. “College is obviously a time for self-exploration—being open to new experiences, meeting new people, finding what you like and what you want to do and how you want to live,” she says. “You can’t really plan that, but you can be open to the changes coming your way.”

Carina notes that being flexible is based on a certain level of self-confidence and reduced anxiety levels. “In high school, I struggled with social anxiety and found it hard to make friends,” she says. “In college, I started to embrace aspects of myself and started being proud of myself and my differences. I think that helped me make friends. It’s great to be in an environment where you can do that.”

I saw similar sentiments being expressed by college students in a New York Times article, “Advice for New Students From Those Who Know (Older Students),” reprinted from Education Life, which posted advice from seasoned upperclassmen to incoming freshmen. There’s a lot of practical advice here, classified under headings such as “Do the Work,” “Choose Classes Wisely,” “Don’t Get Stuck,” and “Understand the System and Work It.” Yet most of the discussion fell under the headings “Be Yourself,” “Tend to Yourself,” and “Extend Yourself.”

In other words, navigating the uncharted waters of college takes a certain amount of self-knowledge and self-confidence. And, it could be argued, becoming more centered and stable in yourself, learning how to lessen anxiety and stress, is the most important subject to study in college.

But how do you get there—to that centered space inside you? How do you combat social anxiety and the increasing stressors of college life?

Combatting Anxiety and Social Stress

Learning how to reduce anxiety and stress is especially crucial for women, as research shows that women experience higher levels of anxiety and psychological distress than men on college campuses. Researchers believe that college students today are particularly prone to psychological distress due to interpersonal and social problems, pressures to succeed academically, financial strains, and uncertain futures.

College today is a time of incredible stress. With 18 million students reporting mental health issues—including a 50 percent increase in depression and more than twice as many students on psychiatric medications than ten years ago—more students than ever before are seeking psychiatric help. In addition, 44 percent of college students binge drink, 37 percent report use of illegal drugs, 19 percent report clinical depression, and 13 percent report high levels of anxiety.

Yet despite these daunting statistics—or perhaps because of them—a growing number of college students today are learning to care for themselves better, taking time to get enough sleep, eat well and practice stress-reduction measures such as the Transcendental Meditation technique.

Practiced just twenty minutes twice a day, the TM technique is easy to fit into the college routine. It allows the mind to effortlessly settles to quieter levels of thinking, tapping into the inner reservoir of creativity and intelligence at its silent depths. Simultaneously the body gains deep rest and releases accumulated stress and tension. Students report that they feel calmer, more focused and less stressed afterwards, allowing them to achieve better grades and to experience a stronger sense of self.

A number of peer-reviewed research studies confirm these personal experiences, showing that students who practice the TM technique regularly experience significant improvements in memory and IQ, academic performance, creativity and alertness, social relationships and self-esteem. At the same time stress, anxiety and substance abuse decline.

As just one example, a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, the Transcendental Meditation technique was found to be an effective non-medical tool for students to buffer themselves against the stresses of college life. As the first randomized controlled study to explore the effects of meditation on the brain and physiological functioning in college students, it used the Brain Integration Scale to measure the effect of 10 weeks of TM practice on 50 randomly assigned students at American University in Washington, D.C. At post-test, the meditating students had higher Brain Integration Scale scores, less sleepiness, and faster habituation to a loud tone—they were less jumpy and irritable.

It’s interesting to note that the three-month post-test was taken right before spring semester exams—probably the most stressful time of the year. During final exams, students typically stay up late for several days, eating bad food, getting no exercise, and feeling acute anxiety. Any one of these factors by itself is known to decrease the integrated functioning of the brain.

As expected, the non-meditating control group of 50 randomly assigned students had lower Brain Integration Scale scores, indicating their brain functioning was more fragmented—which can lead to more scattered and disorganized thinking and planning. “The controls also showed an increase in sympathetic reactivity and sleepiness, which can correspond to greater anxiety, worry, and irritability,” says Dr. Travis, lead author of the study and Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management.

Meditating students were less tired and fatigued; they recovered from stressful stimuli better and showed increased scores on the Brain Integration Scale, which is correlated with emotional stability, higher moral reasoning, and decreased anxiety.

“The Brain Integration Scale measures whether the brain is functioning as an integrated whole or as isolated parts,” explains Dr. Travis. “The practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique allows the brain to function as a whole, in an integrated manner. This integrated functioning buffers the effects of the high-stress college lifestyle.”

Dr. Travis concludes that transcending through Transcendental Meditation practice fundamentally changes brain functioning so that students are able to live life more effectively and successfully, without suffering from the deleterious effects of stress. “It allows students to live life in a state of evenness and wholeness rather than in anxiety and stress,” he says.

Making Personal Goals

I am proud of my niece for finding strategies that helped her to adjust to college life. Carina highlights one strategy, in particular, that worked for her: making personal goals. Her list included exercising every day and practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, which helped her to stay grounded, adjust to college life and reduce anxiety and stress levels.

“Going to college, you start to understand what works for you personally,” she says. “Meditation is good for me because I can feel overwhelmed when I’m out of my comfort zone, surrounded by so many new people and new experiences. Meditating helps me feel more centered, more secure within myself, so I can enjoy experiencing new things without losing myself. Meditating is self-empowering and helps me navigate social situations in which I don’t initially feel powerful. It’s a great tool to try out.”

Carina admits that there were a lot of things going into college that she felt unprepared for. Yet that’s not a bad thing, she has discovered.

“One of the biggest changes in the past year is that I don’t feel the need to have all the answers,” she says. “Now I feel like whatever does come my way in life I’ll be able to handle it and it will be OK.”

Bottom line? “Doing what I need to be happy, rather than what someone else tells me I should be doing,” she says. “I feel like I found a stronger voice within myself since going to college.”

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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