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One way to decrease stress, Staton said, is to unplug from and build a healthier mindset around social media.

The onset of the fall semester and return of in-person classes has brought excitement for many students, but it’s been accompanied with the stressors of adjusting back to pre-pandemic routines and the lurking cloud of the Delta variant. Stress-mitigation techniques for college students aren’t new, but their importance is arguably heightened this year. 

In order to combat whatever stressor is your biggest roadblock — whether it be the pandemic, social pressures, social media or something else — Renee Staton, JMU’s Clinical Mental Health (CMH) Counseling Program director, said to find a stress reliever that’s accessible, appropriate and available for you. This means practicing meditation doesn’t have to suffice if sitting for long periods, or its religious connotations, are a turnoff, she said. 

Transcendental meditation: 'I immediately experienced the value'

A certain meditation practice, however, can serve as a stress reliever for college students, Bob Hallahan, JMU jazz piano professor and 50-year practitioner of transcendental meditation, said. 

This version of meditation involves repeating a mantra — a word or sound without meaning — aloud and later in your head during the practice until you reach a state of “restful alertness,” Hallahan said. 

“It's kind of like taking a nap without going to sleep,” Hallahan said. “Just like when you sleep, you're throwing off the stresses and strains of the day. The transcendental meditation technique has that effect but at a deeper level.”

The transcendental meditation veteran said he “immediately” experienced benefits from the practice when first trying it in high school after being in “a dark place.” The stress relief is a byproduct of the practice, Hallahan said, and you don’t need to be a seasoned meditator to try transcendental meditation. 

What makes transcendental meditation stand out as a stress reliever specifically is its separation from a “mindful” meditation practice. Rather than citing your thoughts or mindfully anchoring meditation to the breath, junior jazz studies major Peter Haensel said transcendental meditation emphasizes effortlessness and not focusing on any singular thing. 

“You're kind of giving your brain something to chew on that's meaningless,” Haensel said. “So then you kind of, like, fall into a state of relaxation because your mind senses you're not doing anything.”

Haensel, who was introduced to transcendental meditation by Hallahan, said it’s the “perfect” practice for a college student because you only need 10-20 minutes a day. College students are stretched thin these days, Haensel acknowledged, but “just chilling out and doing [transcendental meditation]” is better than spending that time watching videos on YouTube, he said.

Most stressed generation? 

A plethora of media outlets and the seemingly instantaneous spread of information and heightened expectations are what lead many people, including Staton, to agree that college students are under “more stress than ever.” 

Staton said decreased stigma regarding mental health has led to an increased amount of university-attending students visiting counseling centers across the country — a signal that may or may not indicate increased stress, but rather, a willingness to face it. Facing ourselves in the mirror and evaluating how to ease our stress is step one, Staton said. 

“This is not about mindfulness at all, this is just about reality,” Staton said. “If you're eating junk food all day long, then you don't feel good, then you can't attend to anything else.” 

For specific self-care habits and routines that promote stress relief, JMU’s Counseling Center put together a “Virtual Care Package” to help students combat stressors induced by COVID-19. The habits are divided into physical, mental and social categories, and include drinking water, “engaging in meaningful, reflective, calming and enjoyable activities” and video chatting friends, among other practices. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines for coping with stress suggest eating well-balanced meals, carving out time to unwind and talking to people you trust about how you’re feeling. Staton said another stress-reducing habit helps to recalibrate our minds when under duress — breathing.

Frequently, our minds overreact and treat minor stressors with the same energy as major ones, Staton said, and the simple act of inhaling and exhaling deeply can “stop that story.” Stopping to ask yourself, “When was the last time I took a good breath?” Staton said, helps with anchoring in the present and evaluating the reality — or fakeness — of the current stressor. 

Our phones, and especially social media, often present stressors based on unfair comparisons from a photo of someone living their “best lives,” sometimes amplified by the viewer’s current mental state when looking at it. The second edition of The Facebook Files, a Wall Street Journal investigative series that launched Sept. 13, reported that a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board said 32% of teen girls who already felt bad about their bodies felt even worse after looking at Instagram.  

Still, “unplugging” from social media isn’t the best way to mitigate its stressors, Staton said. 

“It may be helpful instead to reflect a bit on what need is being served when we pick up our phones or check social media,” Staton said. “Answering these types of questions and spending some time considering what we hope to gain from social media, phones, etc., may help us determine whether we could meet that need, desire or curiosity in other ways.”

Regarding the news and media we consume, applying critical thinking skills and engaging in active listening about controversial topics is better than completely ignoring them, Staton said. On the heels of a polarizing election season, the news may currently seem toxic to some college students, but Staton said shielding ourselves from news stories’ stressful effects is “not likely to protect us long” from the clickbaited, highly transmissible age of information. 

High expectations from parents and future employers can be another culprit to this generation’s high-stress schtick. With seemingly more competition between coworkers than 10 years ago, and with more people currently looking for work after being upended from jobs during the pandemic, financial expectations are frequently put onto new college graduates, despite starkly different circumstances than even 19 months ago, pre-pandemic. 

“It’s also relevant to consider how concepts such as ‘success’ are defined in today’s society,” Staton said, “and to wonder how relevant these definitions may be to what some college students truly want for their lives.”

How can we decrease any of these stressors at the college level on a macro scale? “I’m not sure,” Staton said. But the fruits of what could happen on a college campus with lower stress levels would make it look different, to say the least, she said. 

“I believe, or at least hope, that if stress were reduced, that college campuses would feel safer and more inclusive for all students,” Staton said. “I believe people could reclaim time that was spent on worry, planning and rumination and instead be better able to focus on productive behavior that is based on self-awareness and, ideally, mindful attention to themselves and others.”

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every other Thursday, and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.