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Professors study methods to reduce stress

| Tuesday, December 6, 2016

With finals and the end of the semester right around the corner, student stress levels are on the rise. Two Saint Mary’s professors — Jennifer Bauer, assistant professor of nursing, and Catherine Pittman, associate professor of psychology — both studied stress and its effect on students. 

Bauer said she conducted a stress study on sophomore nursing majors who were vocal about being stressed when she worked at the University of Indiana-South Bend. 

“Every day before class, I would have everyone close their eyes,” Bauer said. “I did too, and we would practice deep breathing. Later I introduced guided imagery.” 

According to Bauer, guided imagery is a meditation technique that has the participant evoke mental images that stimulate the body and all five senses in order to elicit a relaxing response.

“At the end of the eight weeks, almost all of my students said they would continue using the techniques to de-stress in everyday situations, like waiting in a long line at a store or at the post office,” Bauer said.

Bauer said that it is better to introduce these techniques to younger students.

“I found that it was more beneficial to teach these relaxation techniques to younger students so that they can utilize them throughout their academic careers,” Bauer said.

Pittman, a psychologist, also studied stress and wrote a book titled “Rewire Your Anxious Brain.” Pittman said worry and overthinking can cause stress, and that stress is directly related to certain parts of the brain.

“The part of the brain called the cortex is what people tend to think of when they think of the brain,” Pittman said. “[The cortex] contains hundreds and hundreds of channels, and some of these are ‘worry channels.’ Those worried thoughts increase anxiety.”

Pittman said the best way to combat worried thoughts is to keep busy.

“Turn worry into a plan,” Pittman said. “Set goals like reading something this night, and looking over notes the next night. Try and do what you can, don’t strive for perfection, and don’t argue with your thoughts. We have control over them, but we can’t just change the channel, it takes time.”

Pittman said another great way to reduce stress is through exercising.

“The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and it is triggered by large amounts of stress,” Pittman said, “The amygdala is not logical. It thinks that the right answer when worried is to run away, so exercising is a good way to trick your amygdala into settling down. When I’m really stressed, I go from my car to the office in the morning as fast as I can because if your amygdala thinks you’ve escaped, it will calm down, and ultimately calm yourself down. Even a brisk walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes can calm the amygdala down.”

Bauer said prayer and meditation are two other good sources of stress relief.

“Prayer — if you pray — is a great stress reliever,” Bauer said. “Anything with calming thoughts that gets you to sit down and focus on something other than your worries is great for relieving stress.”

Bauer said as a professor, she tries to alleviate her students’ stress as much as she can and feels other professors can do the same.

“Professors can help students de-stress, especially before an exam,” Bauer said. “They can dim the lights so the lighting’s not too harsh. They could even play some ocean wave music to relax everyone before an exam.”

Pittman said that before finals, students should get all the sleep they can.

“The amygdala can become unstable without enough sleep, which can cause an increase in anxiety,” Pittman said. “So it’s important to work on sleep and manage time effectively around sleep.”

Bauer said deep breathing exercises can also help curb anxiety, especially prior to an exam.

“Deep breathing, especially in the few minutes before an exam can be extremely beneficial,” Bauer said. “I know I used to be guilty of looking over any notes and note cards up until the test was handed out, but it’s important to use that time to just breathe.”

According to Pittman, deep breathing is another method to calm the amygdala down.

“The amygdala gets the adrenaline pumping through our bodies, and it can be hard to calm ourselves and our thoughts down then,” Pittman said. “Deep breathing can help us focus our thoughts so we stop worrying. The amygdala is uncomplicated; scary thoughts scare the amygdala and get it going.”

Bauer said if students know of anyone suffering from stress and want to help them, there is a few different approaches they can take.

“Be there for them and remind them you understand what they’re going through,” Bauer said. “If they’re a friend, give them a hug, rub their back and remind them that it’s okay. If it’s more serious than that, professors are always available, either after class or in office hours, to consult with the student and talk with them about their fears and anxieties.”

Pittman said it’s important to remember that worrying does not improve anyone’s score, and while worries do not go away with the snap of the fingers, de-stressing techniques can make final exams a little more bearable.

“No one ever got a good grade because of worry,” Pittman said. “They got it because they studied hard. It’s important to remind students, especially with finals, that they’ve lived through it before and will again. Focus on reading and studying, not catastrophic thoughts, or the worrying thoughts that clog up the cortex.”

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