By Loretta Waldman
Across the United States, the rates of college students experiencing psychological difficulties such as anxiety, panic attacks, and severe stress have greatly increased. Students juggle a myriad of demands, including financial responsibilities, school-work-life balance, parental expectations, and the pressure of career decisions, all while undergoing the challenging transition into independence and self-sufficiency.
Professor of Psychological Sciences and InCHIP Principal Investigator Crystal Park, PhD has long been interested in the broad mental health and well-being of college students and the variety of strategies that can be undertaken when coping with stress. In recent years, she has also been investigating mind-body relationships, particularly the science of yoga and its impact on physical and mental health.
Dr. Park’s forthcoming article in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Research combines these two interests in an examination of the use of yoga by college-aged women as an effective coping strategy for stress. She worked collaboratively on this study with a team of researchers that included Co-Investigator Linda Pescatello, PhD, FACSM (Kinesiology); UConn graduate students Kristen Riley, Tosca Braun, Ji Yeon Jung, Hyungyung G. Suh; and University of Miami colleague, Michael Antoni, PhD. Together they examined the feasibility and differential efficacy of yoga and Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management (CBSM) in reducing stress and improving mental and physical health in first-year college students. Yoga is increasingly popular as a health-promoting activity, but little research has examined how it affects college students. CBSM is a short-term therapeutic approach that focuses on how people’s thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors.
Thirty-four incoming first-year female students were assigned to eight weeks of yoga, CBSM, or a wait-list control. Participants were assessed prior to the start of the intervention, at the conclusion of the 8-week intervention, and then four months after it ended. The results indicated that relative to the control group, both CBSM and yoga produced positive changes in psychosocial and behavioral health as well as in health-related measures of physical function and activity. Although yoga was rated as more helpful by the participants than CBSM when assessed immediately after the intervention, both methods were perceived as equally helpful at the four-month follow-up. Most importantly, both interventions appeared to offer benefits to first semester, first-year women in the midst of a major life transition when stress is high and opportunities to establish healthy lifestyle and coping patterns are readily available.
“I think the bottom line is that both interventions relative to control were useful,” said Park. “These kinds of inexpensive, easy-to-implement programs should be more available to incoming college students…. I know the effects of stress on people and the toll that it takes mentally and physically. People have problems sleeping and with academics. There are so many ways that stress negatively impacts people, so the notion that there is something relatively easy to implement and that is readily disseminated, I think that would reach of a lot of people and potentially do a lot of good in terms of preventive mental and physical health. That’s ultimately where I would like to see this go.”
Researchers have been testing campus stress management programs for decades, but most of those programs have been based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy principles and designed to help individuals identify and modify dysfunctional beliefs that trigger distress. Yoga is another method of stress-management that is becoming increasingly popular among college students in the U.S., but rarely have its health benefits been studied in that population. This study is one of the first to demonstrate yoga’s potential with college students as a stress management measure.
“We are getting people right when they are coming to campus, so they had not been identified as being at particularly high risk of having other problems,” stated Dr. Park. “I think this suggests that being proactive can be very helpful for people who are facing potentially stressful situations.”