Breathe in, breathe out: April is National Stress Awareness Month and a good time to step back and look for signs of worry, tension, and uneasiness, both in yourself and others. In academia, “put your own oxygen mask on first” is an apt analogy; a dose of self-care can go a long way for campus leaders looking to enhance the wellbeing of student communities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, school leaders should “eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep,” and take breaks when stressed. Only then can they help students cope with their own stress by creating opportunities for conversation, watching for behavioral changes, and providing a sense of safety and stability.
Research shows that college unions play an important role in stress mitigation. ACUI believes that the role of the college union is to advance “a sense of community, unifying the institution by embracing the diversity of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests.”
To that end, a recent study of college students during the COVID-19 pandemic found that a sense of community and access to resources were “protective factors in mitigating stress” and coronavirus-related life disruptions. The study’s findings, published in the Journal of Community Psychology as “The protective role of sense of community and access to resources on college student stress and COVID-19-related daily life disruptions,” revealed that college students who reported a higher sense of community were less likely to report feeling stressed.
Stress Relief Spaces
According to The American Institute of Stress, “Eight in 10 college students experience frequent bouts of stress,” and “61% of college students seek counseling for anxiety, depression, academic performance, family issues, and relationship problems.”
Some student unions have found creative ways to help lessen the weight of these burdens. For example, the University of Pittsburgh’s student union features a Stress Free Zone (SFZ) dedicated to regular mindfulness practice.
According to the school’s Office of Student Health Service, stress can cause high heart rates, tight muscles, and increased heat in the body, while in the mind, it can result in anxiety, racing thoughts, sadness, and irritability. The school’s SFZ space seeks to address both areas of concern.
“SFZ mindfulness services teach skills for working with the mind/body system in ways that not only help us feel better in the moment but also help increase awareness of mental habits that keep us locked into reactive, unhelpful behaviors,” the SFZ website noted. “With increased awareness, we can begin to break those habits and experience some freedom from them.”
The University of Pittsburgh isn’t the only campus to take this approach. In 2022, Oklahoma State University opened a renovated version of its Reboot Center on the third floor of the school’s student union.
“The Reboot Center is designed to create an environment where mind, body, and spirit can come together in a relaxing atmosphere,” Jesse Chaffin, Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Health and Wellness Manager, said last year. “We have equipment and activities specifically designed to help our students and employees relax, unwind, and unplug from whatever stress they may be encountering in their daily lives.”
Amenities include massage chairs; sensory play with kinetic sand, fidget toys, and coloring books; and semi-private energy pods for recharging internal batteries.
Also known as napping pods, these unique chairs often include privacy shields, ergonomic design, gentle alarm technology, and built-in speakers that play relaxing rhythms — making them a popular stress-reduction solution for student centers across the U.S. In addition to Oklahoma State’s Reboot Center, napping pods can also be found at Washington State University’s Chinook Student Center, California State University–Northridge’s Student Recreation Center, and the University of Miami’s Shalala Student Center, among others.
In addition to spaces dedicated to stress relief, many universities provide a wealth of campus wellbeing resources. The Student Health and Wellness center at Iowa State University, for example, offers a student-led Community of C.A.R.E focused on helping student groups prioritize and engage in sustainable wellbeing strategies. For faculty and staff, the center provides a comprehensive toolkit for supporting student wellbeing that many union leaders will find helpful.
Other student unions prioritize mental health when student stress soars during finals season. In 2021, the University Student Union at California State University, Northridge, provided students stress relief via free finals-week supplies, study rooms, crafting opportunities, fitness and mindfulness events, and meditation workshops.
Student unions also leverage the love of pets to mitigate finals stress. According to a 2018 Bulletin report, the University of California allows students to spend time with certified therapy dogs during special crunch-time events; other schools offer year-round services. Instead of animals, unions at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, the University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, and Gonzaga University have also infused their unions with biophilic designs, vertical gardens, and hydroponic vegetable-growing units to capitalize on the healing nature of green spaces.