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As college has once again begun, so have the thousands of hopes, failures, successes and hardships that weigh upon our shoulders as a student body. Inevitable with any transition between stages of life, a shift in environments can haze our perception of normalcy, or reality in general. Our minds can easily be consumed by the looming expectations of college as a whole, with its academic burdens, social expectations and overall frenzy of life. Being as romanticized as they are, such eventful occasions can rework reality into a sense of impending doom, and time often has a way of emphasizing its imminence. 

But as we worry about if we left our favorite pair of jeans at home, or try to cram for the next exam, it’s important to remember that we have already displayed a mental capability far more nuanced and complex than we realize. Every single worry we carry about the past, present or future is a testament to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution that have resulted in what the scientific community calls “mental time travel”.

Being able to re-experience the memories of our ancestors and use that to fabricate potential scenarios for the future has been a skill that has been a unique advantage that has contributed to much of our success as a species. As blessed a skill this may be to have, when we shift our discussion of this concept from its evolutionarily advantageous aspects to how it can affect an average, everyday life, it can lead to an overwhelming wealth of information out there left for us to process. 

We have far progressed past the point in which our expanded mental capacity is required for survival anymore as a species. Although we are fundamentally the same as ancestors, we don’t face dangers that they did such as fleeing from predators anymore. The process of shaping and malleating these talents into the context of an average life is just one of the many expectations that we are assumed to have already figured out and perfected as college students. But in truth, letting our perceptions of time and reality get ahead of us is often the root cause for many of our hardships in the first place. 

Some studies even correlate the core basis of depression and anxiety disorders with a difficulty in balancing temporal travel between the past and present in the brain. As trivial as it seems, our perception of our own consciousness and our place in time are one and the same in a sense. We view ourselves in the context of phases in time, pieces of a larger history that we can feel even if we haven’t directly experienced it. More than just mere recollections, as we grow and mature and our responsibilities increase, many find a comfort and escape in consciously reliving the past and actively manufacturing foreseeable futures. What initially emerged in us as a biological advantage from our ancestors has transitioned into a scope of endless possibilities and escapes to get away from the perpetual, ever-present construct that is time. 

However, constantly carrying around the burden of all of the past experiences of our ancestors as well as the looming uncertainties of the future is a discouraging lens to look at, especially at the stage of life where every little action we take feels like it’s supposed to serve the purpose of manufacturing the perfect future for ourselves. Failing a class or breaking up with a significant other can seem like the be-all and end-all of our lives for now, but eliminating this variable of time completely helps truly put it into perspective. Most things we do are relatively insignificant, and that can be a depressing reality to face.

Yet there can be comfort in knowing that sometimes our lives are nothing more than mere sequences of concrete events. Every anxious thought that has festered within us as reality’s agenda seems to surpass our own is simply nothing more than that: a thought. The only thing that we truly can confidently define is what we are perceiving at the present moment. Studies have even shown that participants that regularly practiced dispositional mindfulness, or regularly bringing non-judgmental awareness to the circumstances of the present moment, had a better psychological well-being and life satisfaction overall. 

The practice of mindfulness entails more than just recognizing your current surroundings; it involves an acute awareness of every sensation and sentiment that we are experiencing at that very moment. “It’s not just meditating, but can even be something like eating slowly and intentionally enjoying the flavors of your meal. Mindfulness incorporates all aspects of perception and is flexible in the ways it does that – which makes it incredibly unique to each person,” said Anna Miklosek, co-president of the Mindful Michigan club on campus. 

Although it may seem intimidating to try, practicing mindfulness can easily be integrated into our everyday lives. “One of my favorite things to do just to get my brain back in the habit is to walk mindfully,” Miklosek said. “Being college students, we all probably have to walk to our classes and I like to take that time for mindfulness. Some of my go-tos are noticing the sun on my skin, paying attention to the people around me, or focusing on a specific body part and how it feels (like my feet or legs). Sometimes if campus is overstimulating, listening to music to shut out excess noise helps me hone into myself a bit better.”

 For Miklosek, these simple practices have offered invaluable merit. “Simple things like deep breathing help calm our amygdala’s survival responses almost instantly, and so I realized forms of mindfulness can be accessible options with beneficial long-term and immediate impacts too. It’s allowed me to read myself in ways I couldn’t before and turned into something I can lean on when I notice my mind or body might need it.”

So the next time you find yourself worrying about how to curate the perfect cocktail of extracurriculars to impress the next boss or dean, or being disappointed in your score on the last exam, remember that at this moment you are not alone. Everyone you have ever loved, hated and everything in between is also experiencing this present moment and coping with the myriad of struggles and difficulties that come with it as well. The whats and ifs that come with any time other than right now are simply fabrications of our minds. But it’s important to remember that, by practicing mindfulness, we can alter this relationship we have with ourselves and use the past as a stepping stone to a brighter future, rather than a weight bringing us down just by acknowledging what is real and right now. 

Sree Panicker is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at sreep@umich.edu

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