Buddy the Golden Retriever is shown during a visit from therapy animals December 15, 2014 in O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library. The animals were on hand to help students relieve the stress of studying for finals.

How It Works: Stress and De-Stressing

College can be full of significant stressors for a lot of students: managing time; being independent; establishing new relationships; balancing financial responsibilities; figuring out how to eat and sleep well; cultivating a network of opportunities for after college; and succeeding academically. With finals right around the corner, that last one might feel more pertinent than ever.

Whether college feels overwhelming or just the last few weeks have been a little difficult, St. Thomas has options to help students stress less.

“(We know) that what works for one person for stress reduction doesn’t necessarily work for the other, so we have a wide variety of different ways,” said Birdie Cunningham, associate director of health and wellness.

So, especially, if you’re feeling stressed out right now, take a deep breath and read on about some of the helpful techniques, resources and people at St. Thomas.

Stress is normal

Let’s get that out of the way. Some stress is good for you.

“If there wasn’t stress, you wouldn’t get up in the morning,” Cunningham said. “There’s good stress, and stress has a role it plays in our lives. It’s productive.”

Jeri Rockett, director of counseling and psychological services, said it’s important to understand that when the body has a reaction to stress that invokes the sympathetic nervous system, while it might not feel good, it’s not abnormal. Instead, understanding the fight-or-flight response can be immediately helpful.

“Most of the threats that people had in prehistoric days were physical. The saber-toothed tiger jumped out from behind the bushes, and you had to run away or fight it, or you ended up dead,” Rockett said. “We still have that genetic reaction. Most of our threats were physical.” Because our bodies are still trained to deal with those physical threats, when we’re presented with a threat, we react accordingly, Rockett explained. Adrenaline rates and stress hormones jump, and our heart rate increases. The problem is we’re not fighting the saber-toothed tiger anymore.

“You go to a class and you find out that you have a test the next day that you forgot about … or your boyfriend or girlfriend is breaking up with you. They’re not things you can deal with by fighting your professor or running out of the classroom,” Rockett said.

In lieu of fighting or fleeing, Rockett recommended a few minutes of aerobic activity or deep breathing.

“If you’re stressed and do 15 minutes of something that gets your heart rate up, then you calm down. If you get stressed … and do nothing about it, it takes 50 minutes for all those stress hormones to go through your system on their own,” she said. “If you do something aerobic, it takes 15 (minutes).”

Deep breathing helps because it tells the brain to stop sending stress hormones, she added. “If you’re deep breathing, your amygdala is saying, ‘OK. We’re good. We’re relaxed now,’” Rockett said.

Stress solutions

What’s important is to identify when stress goes from being helpful and motivating and to negative. When stress impacts sleep, health or relationships, that may be when it’s time to seek out additional help, Rockett said.

“I think it’s easier for people to deal with it in the earlier stages,” Rockett said. “So, the earlier the better.”

Reducing stress isn’t one-size-fits-all, so, with that in mind, Counseling and Psychological Services, as well as the Wellness Center, offer many programs and resources with the hope students find something that connects with them. (That being said, the services covered below are not intended to be an exhaustive list.)

To start off, Counseling and Psychological Services provide individual and group counseling.

For those with trouble finding time to sit down with someone, Rockett noted one new program is TAO (Therapist Assisted Online Connect), which has interactive educational modules on topics such as depression or anxiety that can be accessed online at any time and repeated as needed. The user also has a weekly online meeting with an individual counselor (for a St. Thomas student, that would be with a Counseling and Psychological Services staff member) that is similar to Skype, but also HIPAA compliant. Such a tool gives students more flexibility with their schedules, Rockett said.

Counseling and Psychological Services and the Wellness Center also both have pages dedicated to online mental health resources with more in-depth information, as well as links to online mental health screening and apps for relaxation and meditation, yoga and sleep cycle monitoring. Both also bring programs into the residence halls.

Cunningham highlighted the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation. PMC provides opportunities and meetings for St. Thomas community members to meditate and continues to grow across campus. (Cunningham added that their podcasts are popular.) A new class, Mindfulness Meditation, also will be taught in the spring. Cunningham noted that research backs PMC: A St. Thomas study last spring tested the cortisol, or stress hormone, levels of 30 students before and after participating in mindfulness meditation. The results showed a significant decrease in stress levels.

The Wellness Center also has monthly classes that teach students techniques to reduce their stress. Sophomore Chelsea Akin, who is in charge of stress and sleep on the Health Promotion Team, coordinated the events throughout fall semester. She often partnered with massage therapist Stacy Dunn, bringing classes from reflexology and aromatherapy to couples massages. With the classes capped around 20 students, Akin said she liked the close interactions – and the added benefit of possibly making a friend.

"People just need more time to ... take a deep breath, sit down with others and put their phone away," Akin said.

De-stressing for finals

As finals are a particularly stressful time for almost everybody, St. Thomas has a few events to provide an extra boost to push through.

STAR will host Relaxation Night 9-11 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, in Campus Way in the Anderson Student Center. Regular and aqua massages will be available, as well as healthy snacks, tea, facials and two oxygen bars, which provide "flavors" of oxygen, such as lavender and eucalyptus. Yoga and meditation sessions will also be done with the Wellness Center.

"I think toward the end of the semester, everyone's running low on fuel and very stressed," said sophomore Paige Fellows, a STAR Tommies After Dark intern who helped plan Relaxation Night. "It's nice to have an event that you don't have to high energy for."

"I know a lot of people don't have time to go off campus to get a massage or take a nap or take a break," added sophomore and co-planner Jacob Hartmann, another Tommies After Dark intern. "Having this on Saturday night is a good winding down time."

The therapy animals will be at O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16. Bark Avenue on Parade, a volunteer-based nonprofit, brings the dogs onto campus, while the rabbits and guinea pigs come from the Minnesota Companion Rabbit Society.

Maria Dahmus, program manager in the Office of Sustainability Initiatives in the Center for Global and Local Engagement, said she brought her dogs, Mike and Sam, to the first therapy animal event at the library.

"Just hanging out with dogs can help you regain perspective and relax," Dahmus said. "With a dog present, it reduces all kinds of tensions." She added that being around dogs can help students who miss their dogs at home and help dog lovers connect with one another.

Karen Batdorf, the circulation supervisor at the library who organizes the therapy animal events, said hundreds of students always turn out to visit the furry friends. She echoed Dahmus' sentiment, saying the animals create a happy atmosphere in the library when they visit.

"We hope, overall, that another piece of this project is to create experiences for students that show that the library and university is for you," Batdorf said. "We want to support you and help you do your best and you can do your best and feel well."