Mindfulness workshops help to allay student stresses

Sylvia Balderrama, Facilitator of Integrated Health, leads the weekly mindfulness workshop in the College Center. Balderrama feels the weekly exercises help focus students and relieve overall stress. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Sylvia Balderrama, Facilitator of Integrated Health, leads the weekly mindfulness workshop in the College Center. Balderrama feels the weekly exercises help focus students and relieve overall stress. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Sylvia Balderrama, Facilitator of Integrated Health, leads the weekly mindfulness workshop in the
College Center. Balderrama feels the weekly exercises help focus students and relieve overall stress. Photo By: Sam Pianello

At 12:30 p.m., the Retreat is busy and the hum of the diners can be heard upstairs. It is thus very fitting when the second floor conference room closes and it becomes quiet. Staff and students sit on couches and arm chairs, all gathered for the same purpose: to take time for themselves during an otherwise hectic day.  Seeking to reduce stress and anxiety, the participants are engaged in a weekly mindfulness workshop.

Every Thursday in room 237 of the College Center, Facilitator of Integrated Health Sylvia Balderrama leads a mindfulness workshop. But what is mindfulness? While it may be a simple word, it can be difficult to characterize. When defining mindfulness, Balderrama said her definition is in constant flux.

“I think if you ask me that 10 minutes from now, I’ll have a different answer, because it can mean so many different things. But I try to limit it, too, so that I can get my point across. Mindfulness is a practice of being aware and paying attention to our life as it is right now,” she explained.

Mindfulness works by focusing on the here and now, and can include anything from focusing on the breath to the body moving in a purposeful way. As most students can attest, it can be easy to become frustrated by the mistakes of the past and potential problems that lie ahead. By diverting attention away from these racing thoughts and focusing on the present, people allow themselves to slow down and become more mindful of the current moment in time they are occupying.

In her weekly Thursday sessions, open to all on a drop-in basis, Balderrama tries to focus on a different technique each week. In hopes to provide members of the community with many different resources, each session will try to explore a different mindfulness technique.

“So far I’ve focused more on the breathing technique, because I think that is what a lot of people think about when they think about mindfulness. And I think that is one of the most widely used techniques, but there are a number of them.”

Stress and anxiety are problems everyone faces and they can be difficult to deal with. With many students juggling internships, jobs, classes, clubs and other commitments, becoming overwhelmed can be all too easy. For Priscilla Yevoo ’16, the responsibilities of class, work and being a student fellow are taking a toll. “I am currently quite stressed” she wrote in an emailed statement, as she was coming back from October Break. “The idea of coming back to all the studying and midterms is terrifying.”

However, as time has passed, Yevoo has, like many students, developed ways to de-stress. “I take a mental break. I have some chocolate, lay in my bed and listen to One Republic. Most importantly, though, I call and talk to my mom. It makes me feel much better.”

Balderrama, who has had a lot of experience with student stress and anxiety as Vassar’s previous Director of Counseling Services, suggested that there are three things key to managing stress and anxiety. She said she believes that getting good sleep, good nutrition and working on healthy relationships are all integral to one’s well being. But she also suggested that it may not just be stress that can throw people out of whack.

She explained, “We’re not just stressed out. We are also overstimulated, so that we’re pulled in 50 million different ways to go throughout the day. And we may start out being very mindful about what we’re doing , but it is very easy to become distracted.”

She continued, “It’s very possible to go through the day doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing, as opposed to what is really in our best interest.”

For those who would like to try mindfulness in a real-life setting, there are many more opportunities in the coming months. Of course there is the drop-in lunch-time mindfulness program, which actually has little to do with eating. Then there are two different workshops coming up. The first is a mindful eating workshop, which will meet Tuesdays from 3:00-4:00 p.m. until November 12. The focus of this workshop is being aware of the experience of eating and non-judgmentally noticing what is happening inside and around while one eats. The second workshop is being held in conjunction with the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) program. SAVP Coordinator Elizabeth Schrock said she is excited for this new four-week mindfulness series starting Wednesday, October 23 entitled, “Mindfulness Tools for Empowerment: A Self-Help Guide.”

Of this she said, “Traumatizing events can sometimes cause increased anxiety, and mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and focused relaxation may help students to decrease anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness techniques can help students who are dealing with incredibly difficult events to feel empowered through awareness and regulation of distressing emotions.”

For those who cannot attend Balderrama’s workshops, but are interested in the concept of them, mindfulness can be done anywhere. For those who feel overwhelmed during the day or restless before bed, guided mediation tracks may be a step in the right direction. The Apple application Simply Being, and online tracks from the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center are two recommendations for guided meditation programs.

For others who want to use mindfulness in their own personal way, sitting down and closing the eyes is a good start. Focus on just being, and redirect your thoughts back if they start to run away.

Ultimately, mindfulness can be used in many ways in different parts of life and, as Schrock and Balderrama have suggested, has the potential to help with the many stressors that college students often face. Even if an entire lifestyle change is not feasible for many people, there are many options on campus to put the skills of mindfulness to the test.

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