As final exams and holidays loom closer, college students feel the crunch of academic and extracurricular obligations. Even prepared and organized students might feel more stress at this time of the year. Without healthy coping strategies, studies show students’ lessons and relationships can suffer.
“A little deadline pressure sometimes helps me get my assignments done,” says sophomore Chelsea Price. “But when I’m juggling end of term papers, finals and holiday travel arrangements, it can feel really overwhelming.”
Students might turn to junk food binging, Internet surfing, or shopping for stress relief, but a Georgia Southern University study reports that these types of coping mechanisms are ineffective. Worse yet, they may do more harm than good — setting students up to develop low stress tolerance.
And it’s not just students on college campuses dealing with stress. Research indicates stress levels have increased in almost every demographic category over the past 25 years.
The Wake Forest Meditation Group
Three years ago, University Chaplain Timothy Auman recognized a need on campus for healthful ways to manage stress, not only during exam time but also throughout life. He responded by creating an interfaith meditation group. “People who make meditation a daily practice see benefits in the classroom, in the workplace, and in their relationships and friendships,” Auman said. “It’s a change to the rhythm of life that allows you to improve your wellbeing.”
Dr. Michelle Nicolle, an associate professor and neurobiologist at Wake Forest School of Medicine and one of four rotating meditation group leaders, says research supports the physical and emotional value of meditation. “Neuroscience literature shows changes that occur in the brain as a result of meditation,” Nicolle said. “Often, subjects see an increase in compassion, empathy and awareness. These qualities, by their very nature, make the world and our community a kinder place to live. As one meditates regularly, I would argue that it raises personal awareness about how incredibly linked we are as human beings.”
The meditation group reflects this connected attitude. Sessions last 30 minutes and draw undergraduate, graduate and medical school students, faculty, and people from the Winston-Salem community. The group uses a predominantly Zen style, based on the school of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in China some 15 centuries ago. No prior experience with meditation is necessary.
Auman says the Zen practice of slowing down and focusing on one task at a time can help people manage their workloads. “Most of us are constantly multitasking throughout the day. That’s a necessary part of life, but multitasking is not a virtue. It’s very difficult to be fully present when you are constantly forced to give pieces of yourself away.”
In addition to the meditation group, Wake Forest faculty launched a Tai Chi group this semester. David Harold, a community member and instructor who has both practiced and taught Tai chi since 1975, teaches the group and explains how to apply Tai Chi principles to ordinary life with the hope of accomplishing more peaceful outcomes.
Tai Chi is a series of soft, smooth movements choreographed into a careful routine. This careful exercise has been shown to reduce stress and increase mental health by improving the mind-body-spirit connection. Each Friday morning during the academic year the group meets on Hearn Plaza in front of Wait Chapel to perform its routine.
Participants do not need to have any previous knowledge or experience with the exercise, as every meeting accommodates both beginners and connoisseurs.
“Tai Chi helps integrate both the spiritual and physical aspects of our life,” said Auman. “And contemplative traditions like meditation and relaxation help us develop an awareness of the present moment so we can focus on what is truly important.”
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