Stress workshop series addresses student anxiety

The “Balancing Mind and Body to Reduce Stress” workshop took place last Thursday, October 30th, in the library’s Wilby Room. It is part of the Counseling Center’s series of workshops on stress taking place on Thursdays in November and concluding December 9th. The students in attendance were eager to recognize the signs of stress and learn the skills necessary to keep stress levels at bay.

Nelson Binggeli of the Counseling Center began by explaining the physical and emotional changes the body makes in response to stress, also called the “fight-or-flight” stress response: increased heartbeat, shallow breathing, increased sweating and a sudden burst of energy.

Besides the uncomfortable feelings typically associated with it, stress can cause serious physical harm. “[T]he hormone cortisol, which is released during chronic activation of the stress response, has deleterious physical effects over time,” Binggeli said. According to Binggeli, these effects include weakening of the immune system, increased susceptibility to infectious diseases and cancerous cell growth and atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries,” resulting in heart disease.

The workshop focused on diaphragmatic breathing and meditation, two simple yet important tactics for stress management. Diaphragmatic breathing—as opposed to chest breathing which is shallow and associated with anxiety—utilizes the diaphragm, a muscle separating the lungs and abdomen. It is slow and deliberate and often induces relaxation. Meditation, in this case, simply means focusing one’s attention on a single thought at a time.

“Breathing and meditation are powerful ways of slowing down and turning off the stress response. This is especially important when the stress response is serving no useful purpose and when there is a tendency for the person to chronically activate it,” Binggeli said.

During the workshop, Binggeli walked participants through an exercise in breathing and meditation, asking them to allow their lungs to expand gradually on inhale, taking air down to the bottom of their lungs. When done properly, one’s abdomen should rise on inhale, and fall on exhale, similar to the way a sleeping baby breathes. There is relatively little movement of the chest in diaphragmatic breathing.

For a simple meditation, Binggeli recommends counting on each breath in and saying the word “relax” on each exhale. Breathing should be kept steady and relaxed, at about 10 breaths per minute. For optimal results, focus on the counting and clear the mind of any extraneous thoughts. Meditation allows one to let go of thoughts about the past and future and simply pay attention to being in the “here and now,” according to Binggeli.

“[O]ur minds are often engaged in ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. This causes us to lose touch with our actual life experience, and the ‘non-mindful’ way of being is very much associated with the triggering of the stress response when it is not necessary,” Binggeli said.

Binggeli is a licensed psychologist who holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University. His special interests include mind-body approaches to stress management, cognitive-behavioral therapy for mood and anxiety disorders, psychological assessment and helping people to overcome the effects of unsupportive environments and traumatic experiences.

Upcoming workshops on stress hosted by the Counseling Center include “Manage Your Stress Before It Manages You” (Nov. 13), “Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Using Logic to Overcome Stress” (No. 20) and “Stress Management for the Holidays and Every Day” (Dec. 9).

Each November class will be held in the Wilby Room, which is located in the lower level of the main library, and will last from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. The December workshop will take place from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the Student Center’s Cypress Room.

The Counseling Center is located in the Student Services building and offers various services, including individual, group and couples counseling, outreach, consultation and crisis intervention.