Combating Student Anxiety in Safe Space of Rec & Wellness Centers

In the midst of exploring the ways in which private universities and colleges are working to combat students' anxieties, my thoughts shifted to literary representations of anxiety, and specifically to Lemuel Gulliver, whose Whiggish aspirations for social mobility and wealth lead to a series of doomed adventures, each more traumatic than the next.

The most iconic scene in Jonathan Swift’s incomparable Gulliver’s Travels is that of Gulliver on his back, bound by rope and immobilized as tiny Lilliputians maraud the landscape of his body and threaten him with arrows and cannonballs.

Gulliver’s expression is a mix of confusion and curiosity, for he knows the natives cannot truly injure him.

The scene is depicted on countless paperback covers and featured also in advertisements for film adaptations, among them a television miniseries with Ted Danson as Gulliver, and most recently, a family-friendly comedy starring Jack Black. While hilarious in parts, the original 1726 text offers much more than comedy; in fact, its conclusion is tragic, with Gulliver finally returning home to Britain, only to discover his estrangement from family, country, and the human race at large.

Alienation, Anxiety, and Estrangement

Gulliver’s fate compels readers to consider how estrangement from home, amplified by the daily stresses of cultural assimilation, can result in alienation, anxiety, and even a rift in one’s sense of self.

It would be silly to suggest that higher education poses challenges for students akin to what Gulliver endures. But the comparison is not entirely far-fetched. For one, like Gulliver, students leave home for the promise of adventure, to explore and make discoveries; and also, like Gulliver, students are actively invested in the pursuit of a fulfilling and secure life.

The separation so common among first-year students is itself a major source of anxiety. Overnight, students are distanced from their traditional support system of family and friends. They must adapt to new roommates, manage heavy workloads, and contend with an evolving identity, one brought on by their newfound independence.

According to a study in 2015 by the American College Health Association, 57.7% of college students in the U.S. felt overwhelming anxiety over the course of that calendar year. In the same survey, 17.3% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety.

The findings indicate a steady and alarming rise in the role that anxiety plays in the daily lives of students. As of Fall 2018, 63% reported overwhelming anxiety, while 23% sought treatment for it. As of Fall 2019, findings were again higher at 65.7% and 24.3% respectively.

Sleep Disruption, Loneliness, and Mental Health

Studies have shown that anxiety in college students is aggravated by a variety of factors. Jack S. Peltz et al. contend in “Bidirectional Associations Between Sleep and Anxiety Symptoms in Emerging Adults in a Residential College Setting” that a correlation can be found between anxiety and sleep disruption caused by drinking excess caffeine and pulling all-nighters.

Other studies have explored the relationship between loneliness and issues of mental health, anxiety among them. Academic factors such as school-related stress and disengagement from studies likewise have been associated with psychological distress and anxiety among “Relations Among Loneliness, Social Anxiety, and Problematic Internet Use,” has linked anxiety to Internet use, and has flagged the negative impact of social media on the evolving identities of college students.

Anticipating and Treating Anxiety’s Impact on Students

What are private colleges and universities doing both to anticipate and treat the increasing impact that anxiety has on the student body?

Mental health services are widely available on campuses, and they play a vital role in combating students’ anxiety. Additionally, institutions like Rice University, St. Mary’s College of California, and Northeastern University have adopted an innovative strategy for contending with the steady rise of anxiety experienced by their students.

All three institutions are using campus-based recreation and wellness centers as sites for addressing anxiety by way of physical exercise and relaxation-oriented amenities and programs. The effect is to cultivate a safe space for students who suffer from anxiety, and in turn to assure them that anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of.

Leslie R. Rith-Nanjarian et al. have argued in “A Systematic Review of Prevention Programs Targeting Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in University Students” that the de-stigmatization of anxiety (and mental illness more broadly) is especially key for male students, who are less likely than their female counterparts to seek help.

That anxiety can be treated in a familiar and “non-clinical” environment makes the pursuit of such treatment all the more appealing for students reluctant to seek help. On-campus proximity to a community of peers who share in the goal of physical and mental well-being is another key benefit to treating anxiety within the space of recreation and wellness centers.

Nirvana and Yoga Breaks at Rice University

Rice University is home to the Barbara and David Gibbs Wellness Center. It is a beautiful facility, one equipped with large windows for natural light, state of the art weight and cardio equipment, a 50-meter competition pool, racquetball and squash courts, as well as an outdoor training park. Nirvana Sessions are also offered twice a week. These are described as “25-minute guided meditation sessions,” and the goal is to promote “becoming a calmer, more healthy individual.”

Students in attendance either sit in the pews or grab a mat for the floor. Each session begins with an inspirational quote, and the class is guided sequentially through a meditation consisting of multiple parts, with priority assigned to relaxation and breathing. A topic is also introduced, and these may vary from self-acceptance to the pursuit of gaining new perspectives on daily life.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Slator, Associate Director of Programs at the Rice University’s Wellness Center, the Nirvana Sessions work “as a powerful antidote that can counterbalance the stress and challenge of everyday life.”

In addition to the Nirvana Sessions, the university offers “yoga breaks” through its Lifetime Physical Activity Program. These are free yoga classes held monthly in the residential colleges. One can also take a class called “The Art of Relaxation, Introduction to Yoga and Discovering Personal Wellness.”

Hydrotherapy and Spinning at St. Mary’s College

At the Joseph L. Alioto Recreation Center, the students of St. Mary’s College of California have access to a 60,000-square-foot facility with fitness equipment, multiple gymnasiums, a spin room, a climbing wall, an outdoor aquatic center, among other amenities. They can also enjoy a hydrotherapy spa.

Research suggests that hydrotherapy can help to reduce anxiety. Applying water of different temperatures to one’s skin can alter physiology and mood. A cold swim is often invigorating, while a warm one makes vessels vasodilate (relax).

Decreases in stress hormones like cortisol have also been linked to hydrotherapy, thus aligning with the experience of many when taking a bath-a wave of calm. The de-stigmatization of anxiety for students will require a collective effort, and like Rice University, St. Mary’s College of California is doing its part.

Vinyasa Yoga, Tae Kwon Do, Capoeira, and Hip-Hop at Northeastern

The recreation facilities at Northeastern University are diverse, ranging from weight and cardio equipment to courts used for squash, volleyball, basketball, badminton, futsal, and roller hockey. An indoor aquatics center protects students from the harsh Boston winters, and a sauna keeps them warm and relaxed following a workout. The university offers instructional programs such as Tae Kwon Do, capoeira, hip-hop dance, and vinyasa yoga.

It is vinyasa yoga that stands out in the context of treating student anxiety. Vinyasa can be translated as “arranging something in a special way.” This is apt, for it teaches the arrangement of the body via a sequence of different poses, and the desired effect is to “arrange” the mind in accordance to one’s well-being. Students can use vinyasa yoga to develop strength and flexibility, but also as a technique to address anxiety.

Creating a Culture of Empowerment

Around the country, private colleges and universities are using their recreation and wellness centers to create a culture of empowerment. Students are given the tools to confront their anxieties openly and with the assurance that they are supported by their campus-based community, their home away from home.

We all want our students to be healthy and confident, and to graduate knowing that their time with us has played a role in their evolution as adults. Our students need to know that struggling with anxiety is normal, and that we are here to help.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.