When Graham Erwin, PhD, was a third-year graduate student in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, he hit a wall. Overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, he had no clue what to do and considered dropping out. Then he discovered a lifesaver that was, for him, unlikely: a breath-based meditation course.
"I had 12 research projects and none of them were working, and my qualifying exam was approaching fast," said Erwin, now a Stanford Medicine postdoc in genetics who's also a teaching assistant for meditation courses. "I didn't know how to deal with the stress. A lab mate suggested a meditation course. I grew up in the Midwest and thought, 'That's something for Californians, not for me.'"
Feeling desperate, he took the course anyway. And, he said, learning practical ways to manage stress and calm his mind changed his life.
"I proceeded to publish papers in top journals and received two patents on my way to getting my PhD," he said. "Honestly, this level of success was a fantasy prior to that course. Now, I tell all my science friends that if they want to be creative in their research, learn meditation."
Targeting increasing levels of stress
Meditation courses, including the SKY Campus Happiness Program course Erwin took, can be particularly helpful now, when pandemic isolation and stress are adding to a decade of declining mental health on college campuses, said Emma Seppala, PhD, a research psychologist and science director of the Stanford University Center for Compassion Altruism Research and Education.
"Universities are wondering how to handle mental health," said Seppala, who has published multiple studies on meditation and stress. "Especially in this time of racial tension and isolation, we should be teaching students how to handle their emotions as well as their minds."
Stanford is one of the few campuses to offer a for-credit SKY program course, said instructor Julia Tang. With Erwin's help, she also holds online SKY program retreats for the Stanford community, hoping to better connect with students during the pandemic.
Calming the mind during the COVID crisis
"These days, with so much going on -- COVID, the orange skies -- we are in a constant state of fight or flight," Tang said. "We aren't allowing ourselves to relax."
The SKY program meditation technique uses cyclical, rhythmic breathing patterns to bring the mind and body into a restful, calm state, said Tang, who also teaches the importance of interpersonal connections for good mental health.
"Sometimes it's so difficult to think your way out of anxiety," she said, explaining that, by practicing the breathing technique, "You can tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, using the breath to escape that fight-or-flight response that keeps you in a constant state of agitation."
Stress on colleges campuses has been a growing concern for the past 10 years and the pandemic hasn't helped, Seppala said. A recently published study on the impact of COVID-19 on student well-being reported that 60% of college students said the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health care, even as their financial stress and depression increased.
"Counseling services are overwhelmed," Seppala said. "People are wondering how do we get a handle on mental health? How do we handle the isolation?"
Helping more people for less money
Meditation and well-being courses can reach a broader audience far more cheaply than adding more staff to counseling centers, she said. And evidence shows that coping strategies from the courses help.
Breathing practices, for example, are effective at training the body to be calmer and rested, and lower one's levels of cortisol -- the stress hormone, she said.
Seppala led a recently published study that evaluated the benefits for undergraduates of three well-being programs: SKY Campus Happiness; Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Foundations of Emotional Intelligence.
The SKY program was found to be most effective at relieving stress and depression, and improving mental health, social connection, mindfulness and positive emotion, she said. A University of Arizona study with similar results also showed that mental health benefits were strong even three months after the program.
Tang said that a lot of students at Stanford experience the "imposter syndrome," feeling like they don't belong.
"There is so much pressure among these high-achieving students," she said. "We teach them to let go of that need for feeling perfect. 'People are rooting for you,' we tell them, 'imperfections and all.'"
Erwin, who is dedicated to sharing the meditation skills with other students, said the practice has become part of his daily life. "That course was transformative for me," he said.
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