How to reduce anxiety in college: just breathe
College students returning to campus are a stress for many. Containing Covid-19 as students return from across the country and ensuring proper social distancing and mask wearing is an element, but helping to support their mental health needs is quite another. Part of the reason is that some students come to campus already in treatment and need to continue care and others develop mental health symptoms for the first time. Additionally, Mental Health has worsened considerably for young adults during the pandemic. University counseling centers could not meet demand long before Covid-19, and that cannot be expected today.
Emma Seppälä PhD, Happiness Track author and Scientific Director of Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism explains, “he [has been a] mental health crisis on college campuses over the past decade … College campuses, psychiatric and counseling services are overloaded …[and] suicide is the second leading cause of death among 18-25 year olds. We are faced with a dramatic situation and our current forms of treatment do not meet the needs. We also cannot meet everyone’s needs, because it is simply not financially possible.
In other words, she points out that hiring more counselors and psychiatric staff is simply not sustainable and cannot be the solution. Instead, one possible solution might be in the very air we breathe. Literally. At least that’s the case according to two new studies, one written by Seppälä herself.
The first, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, assessed the impact of three different wellness programs (mindfulness-based stress reductionSudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) Campus Emotional Intelligence and Happiness) on 135 undergraduates at Yale University in one semester (30 hours) compared to a control group. SKY Happiness Campus, which was developed by the Art of Living Foundation, is the most comprehensive of the three interventions and includes a breathing technique called SKY Breath Meditation, yoga, social connection, and service activities. According to Annelies Richmond, founding director of the program and director of teacher education for the Art of Living Foundation, the course has been taught since 2010 and is now offered on 58 college campuses. The study found that of all the interventions, SKY Campus Happiness was the most successful, with students showing improvement in all areas measured, including stress, depression, mental health, social connections, mindfulness and positive emotions. Here are some videos of students sharing their experiences with the program. Of the other two interventions, only the emotional intelligence program had any significant effects, with students showing improvement in mindfulness, or the students’ ability to be present in the moment, for the students.
The other study compared the effects of an intensive four-day, 18-hour SKY Campus Happiness workshop to a specially designed monitoring program called Wisdom on Wellness (WOW) that focused on cognitive approaches to stress management. 108 undergraduate and graduate students were randomized to the two programs and thereafter, while all participants felt more socially connected, only those who were in the SKY Campus Happiness group showed a significant decrease in levels of achievement. perceived stress, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression and improved well-being measures such as awareness, self-esteem and life satisfaction. On induced stress tests, both groups had improvements in heart rate during and after the experiments, but only the SKY Campus Happiness group developed resilience against anticipated stress, meaning their heart rate did not. not increased as much when they knew the stress was coming. This study also demonstrated longitudinal results, with further improved well-being even 3 months later.
Dr. Seppälä, lead author of the Yale study, believes that beyond its mere comprehensiveness compared to other interventions, the breathing technique taught in the Sky Campus Happiness program is a key component of its success. She says not only can breathing calm you down in minutes by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digestion) instead of the sympathetic system (fight and flight), but research has shown that breathing is also directly related to your emotions. She explains that when we are anxious or mad, we breathe fast and shallow, and when we are relaxed, we breathe slowly and deeply. In turn, when we learn to change our breathing patterns, then we can change our emotions. Annelies adds, “It seems to work for just about anyone, because everyone breathes, and everyone’s breathing is tied to their emotions and state of mind. It works so powerfully because it uses the natural rhythms of the breath to directly alter the stress response in our nervous system … whatever crazy circumstances may be happening around you and that is real resilience. Breathing techniques can also be learned quickly and students can immediately feel an impact. Dr Seppälä calls breathing “the fastest and most effective tool for mental health”.
Additionally, Annelies believes that the community and social aspect of the program, through leadership training and service learning, greatly contributes to its success. She explains, “Social connection is a basic human need after food and water, and the feeling of being connected predicts our well-being in many ways. If you just teach people to meditate, breathe, and calm their minds with their eyes closed – that’s only half … when we combine evidence-based practices that work – that relieve anxiety and depression and increase positive emotion and well-being – with experiences of social connection and a positive community, then the practices come alive and can be applied in a real setting.
And, there is no more real living environment than university during a pandemic. Perhaps this is the reason why so many people have turned to the program over the past few months. In fact, Annelies says the number of students they have taught has doubled since the pandemic began in March. To put that in perspective, they normally teach around 20,000 students per semester, but this spring / summer they’ve taught around 45,000 students and staff. Annelies believes this indicates that there is even more need for these programs and for a sense of positive community among students across the country.
As students return to campus with increased stress and uncertainty, Dr Seppälä argues that these interventions could really help college campuses by building student resilience and well-being. She thinks that by offering them a course at universities and giving students an option on what to take, but making sure they take something before they graduate, the counseling center could be more free to be used by students who really need the services. . These classes could also help catch at-risk students who would otherwise only be seen in times of crisis, or not at all, by college counseling centers. Students would simply not be able to postpone their mental health needs.
Requiring these courses, especially now, would signal to students that these skills are valued and important to their future. Dr Seppälä says: “Students always feel like they have other things to do and there is kind of that mentality there, especially [in] high performing environments, where people don’t value their well-being because they don’t believe their well-being has anything to do with productivity. Yet she explains that they are wrong because research shows that mental health is directly linked to productivity and creativity. As Annelies says, “Because your mind is the lens through which you view your life, the quality of your life depends on your state of mind. “
Some universities, like Stanford, have already done this. Julia Tang, Lecturer at Stanford University in the Health and Human Performance Division of the Department of Medicine, has been teaching the Sky Campus Happiness program for 20 years and since 2009 it is a credited course. . She notes that they usually have a waiting list and that enrollment is capped at 20 students per semester. They’re also getting top marks, even this semester on zoom. Julia says, “I am so grateful to be able to teach in a place like Stanford that values student well-being as well as academic achievement. By preparing these students for overall and complete success, we give them the tools to thrive. “
Other colleges should consider following their example. Dr Seppälä adds: “Universities teach you to think critically and write… they don’t teach you how to live. They don’t teach you how to be happy, and it’s like, isn’t that part of education, turning people into adults who know how to run their lives? Who would have guessed that it could be as easy as teaching them to breathe out.