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Stressed Out: From the Discovery Classroom

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A few years ago, a placekicker on the UNH football team gave Barbara White feedback on her Discovery course “Stressed Out: The Science and Nature of Stress” that made her know the majority of her students get it. He told her that his record had improved because he had learned to take a breath before making a kick.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes—taking a breath—to help us reroute stress. To transfer it from a negative to a positive. It’s a small thing, seemingly, but the results can be huge.

“Stress isn’t all bad for you but most students start the course thinking it is,” says White, an associate professor of occupational therapy in the College of Health and Human Services, and faculty director of the Discovery Program, UNH’s core undergraduate curriculum. “I tell them, ‘You know the negative aspects of stress but you also need to know that it also can be positive and drive performance.’”

Upwards of 200 students take “Stressed Out,” which is offered during the fall semester and uses music, mediation, mindful eating, writing, drawing and yoga in small lab sessions where students are asked to try a variety of stress management techniques.

In addition to learning how stress affects their well-being and exploring stress reduction skills, students come to understand the physiological piece—the neurophysiologic mechanisms and anatomical structures that initiate and regulate human responses to stress.  

“Students begin to realize that the feelings they are experiencing after class or right before they got there are normal; all supported by body structures and processes that produce hormones initiated by the brain,” White says. “The key in stress management is learning how to control stress for adaptive purposes, rather than be controlled by it.”

Throughout the semester, the students keep a stress journal that cumulates in a two-page reflection paper at the end of the term. Some of them draw; some write music; some use traditional journaling. Nearly all of them come to see a connection between stress and their behavior.

To point out the benefits of “good” stress, White has students go out and watch something “funny enough to produce belly laughs” and then reflect on how they felt. They are asked to exercise and reflect on how it burns off extra stress hormones. They take a look at how other countries manage stress. They do an analysis to see how the amount of sleep they get affects their stress levels. And they take yoga. (Two yoga labs are mandatory. Taking yoga or mediation classes outside the course work can earn them extra credit).

While they are learning about stress anatomy and physiology, students are practicing some form of stress control. One means of measuring their progress (“They get better and better at management each week,” White says) is through the use of biofeedback thermometers. Students learn to measure their bodies’ reactions as well as how to get in touch with their perceptions.

The stress management practices are put to use before each exam when White leads students in breathing exercises. She has them visualize the questions they know the answers to and those they don’t, and has them see themselves moving successfully through those they don’t know. Then they take the exam.

“Learning about stress teaches them to be well armored,” White says. “In college, they are enduring a particularly stressful period. But they learn stress can be good as well as harmful, and how to manage it.

“I tell students ‘When you’re at your peak arousal, that’s an engaged stress response. It’s good stress. Think about what that feels like and harness it. If you go too far with it and become anxious, take a deep breath and get back to where you are in control.’”

“Stressed Out” is a biology general education course that draws all level students from all majors: engineering, humanities, business, the arts, English, and more. A recent UNH graduate now in her first job has asked White to speak at the senior center where she works.

White gets emails from students studying abroad, thanking her and saying how helpful it is to know how to recognize and deal with stress. Some students have told White they have taken what they’ve learned home to their families.

“Students should know how to identify stress. It has a dark side that can lead to poor health if left unchecked. Chronic, relenting and harsh stress can harm developing children. And it can make anyone less competent. But well managed stress can benefit you. Students need to know how manage it well so they can be competent in their careers, good citizens, and good parents,” White says. “They should know how to use it to their advantage and manage it when it becomes a concern.”