The purpose of this blog is to describe how a university class that incorporated structured self-experience practices reduced self-reported anxiety symptoms (Peper, Harvey, Cuellar, & Membrila, 2022). This approach is different from a clinical treatment approach as it focused on empowerment and mastery learning (Peper, Miceli, & Harvey, 2016).
As a result of my practice, I felt my anxiety and my menstrual cramps decrease. — College senior
When I changed back to slower diaphragmatic breathin, I was more aware of my negative emotions and I was able to reduce the stress and anxiety I was feeling with the deep diaphragmatic breathing.– College junior
More than half of college students now report anxiety (Coakley et al., 2021). In our recent survey during the first day of the spring semester class, 59% of the students reported feeling tired, dreading their day, being distracted, lacking mental clarity and had difficulty concentrating.
Before the COVID pandemic nearly one-third of students had or developed moderate or severe anxiety or depression while being at college (Adams et al., 2021. The pandemic accelerated a trend of increasing anxiety that was already occurring. “The prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019” As reported by Chirikov et al (2020) from the UC Berkeley SERU Consortium Reports.
This increase in anxiety has both short and long term performance and health consequences. Severe anxiety reduces cognitive functioning and is a risk factor for early dementia (Bierman et al., 2005; Richmond-Rakerd et al, 2022). It also increases the risk for asthma, arthritis, back/neck problems, chronic headache, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, pain, obesity and ulcer (Bhattacharya et al., 2014; Kang et al, 2017).
The most commonly used treatment for anxiety are pharmaceutical and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) (Kaczkurkin & Foa, 2015). The anti-anxiety drugs are usually benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan). Although these drugs they may reduce anxiety, they have numerous side effects such as drowsiness, irritability, dizziness, memory and attention problems, and physical dependence (Shri, 2012; Crane, 2013).
Cognitive behavior therapy techniques based upon the assumption that anxiety is primarily a disorder in thinking which then causes the symptoms and behaviors associated with anxiety. Thus, the primary treatment intervention focuses on changing thoughts.
Given the significant increase in anxiety and the potential long term negative health risks, there is need to provide educational strategies to empower students to prevent and reduce their anxiety. A holistic approach is one that assumes that body and mind are one and that soma/body, emotions and thoughts interchangeably affect the development of anxiety. Initially in our research, Peper, Lin, Harvey & Perez (2017) reported that it was easier to access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories in a slouched position than an upright position and it was easier to access empowering positive memories in an upright position than a slouched position. Our research on transforming hopeless, helpless, depressive thought to empowering thoughts, Peper, Harvey & Hamiel (2019) found that it was much more effective if the person first shifts to an upright posture, then begins slow diaphragmatic breathing and finally reframes their negative to empowering/positive thoughts. Participants were able to reframe stressful memories much more easily when in an upright posture compared to a slouched posture and reported a significant reduction in negative thoughts, anxiety (they also reported a significant decrease in negative thoughts, anxiety and tension as compared to those attempting to just change their thoughts).
The strategies to reduce anxiety focus on breathing and posture change. At the same time there are many other factors that may contribute the onset or maintenance of anxiety such as social isolation, economic insecurity, etc. In addition, low glucose levels can increase irritability and may lower the threshold of experiencing anxiety or impulsive behavior (Barr, Peper, & Swatzyna, 2019; Brad et al, 2014). This is often labeled as being “hangry” (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2019). Thus, by changing a high glycemic diet to a low glycemic diet may reduce the somatic discomfort (which can be interpreted as anxiety) triggered by low glucose levels. In addition, people are also sitting more and more in front of screens. In this position, they tend to breathe quicker and more shallowly in their chest.
Shallow rapid breathing tends to reduce pCO2 and contributes to subclinical hyperventilation which could be experienced as anxiety (Lum, 1981; Wilhelm et al., 2001; Du Pasquier et al, 2020). Experimentally, the feeling of anxiety can rapidly be evoked by instructing a person to sequentially exhale about 70 % of the inhaled air continuously for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, most participants reported a significant increase in anxiety (Peper & MacHose, 1993). Thus, the combination of sitting, shallow breathing and increased stress from the pandemic are all cofactors that may contribute to the self-reported increase in anxiety.
To reduce anxiety and discomfort, McGrady and Moss (2013) suggested that self-regulation and stress management approaches be offered as the initial treatment/teaching strategy in health care instead of medication. One of the useful approaches to reduce sympathetic arousal and optimize health is breathing awareness and retraining (Gilbert, 2003).
Stress management as part of a university holistic health class
Every semester since 1976, up to 180 undergraduates have enrolled in a three-unit Holistic Health class on stress management and self-healing (Klein & Peper, 2013). Students in the class are assigned self-healing projects using techniques that focus on awareness of stress, dynamic regeneration, stress reduction imagery for healing, and other behavioral change techniques adapted from the book, Make Health Happen (Peper, Gibney & Holt, 2002).
82% of students self-reported that they were ‘mostly successful’ in achieving their self-healing goals. Students have consistently reported achieving positive benefits such as increasing physical fitness, changing diets, reducing depression, anxiety, and pain, eliminating eczema, and even reducing substance abuse (Peper et al., 2003; Bier et al., 2005; Peper et al., 2014).
This assessment reports how students’ anxiety decreased after five weeks of daily practice. The students filled out an anonymous survey in which they rated the change in their discomfort after practicing effortless diaphragmatic breathing. More than 70% of the students reported a decrease in anxiety. In addition, they reported decreases in symptoms of stress, neck and shoulder pain as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Self-report of decrease in symptoms after practice diaphragmatic breathing for a week.
In comparing the self-reported responses of the students in the holistic health class to those of the control group (N=12), the students in the holistic health class reported a significant decrease in symptoms since the beginning of the semester as compared to the control group as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Change in self-reported symptoms after 6 weeks of practice the integrated holistic health skills as compared to the control group who did not practice these skills.
Changes in symptoms Most students also reported an increase in mental clarity and concentration that improved their study habits. As one student noted: Now that I breathe properly, I have less mental fog and feel less overwhelmed and more relaxed. My shoulders don’t feel tense, and my muscles are not as achy at the end of the day.
The teaching components for the first five weeks included a focus on the psychobiology of stress, the role of posture, and psychophysiology of respiration. The class included didactic presentations and daily self-practice
- Diadactic presentation on the physiology of stress and how posture impacts health.
- Self-observation of stress reactions; energy drain/energy gain and learning dynamic relaxation.
- Short experiential practices so that the student can experience how slouched posture allows easier access to helpless, hopeless, powerless and defeated memories.
- Short experiential breathing practices to show how breathing holding occurs and how 70% exhalation within 30 seconds increases anxiety.
- Didactic presentation on the physiology of breathing and how a constricted waist tends to have the person breathe high in their chest (the cause of neurasthemia) and how the fight/flight response triggers chest breathing, breath holding and/or shallow breathing.
- Explanation and practice of diaphragmatic breathing.
Students were assigned weekly daily self-practices which included both skill mastery by practicing for 20 minutes as well and implementing the skill during their daily life. They then recorded their experiences after the practice. At the end of the week, they reviewed their own log of week and summarized their observations (benefits, difficulties) and then met in small groups to discuss their experiences and extract common themes. These daily practices consisted of:
- Awareness of stress. Monitoring how they reacted to daily stressor
- Practicing dynamic relaxation. Students practiced for 20 minutes a modified progressive relaxation exercise and observed and inhibit bracing pattern
- Changing energy drain and energy gains. Students observed what events reduced or increased their subjective energy and implemented changes in their behavior to decrease events that reduced their energy and increased behaviors that increase their enery
- Creating a memory of wholeness practice
- Practicing effortless breathing. Students practiced slowly diaphragmatic abdominal breathing for 20 minutes per day and each time they become aware of dysfunctional breathing (breath holding, shallow chest breathing, gasping) during the day, they would shift to slower diaphragmatic breathing.
Almost all students were surprised how beneficial these practices were to reduce their anxiety and symptoms. Generally, the more the students would interrupt their personal stress responses during the day by shifting to diaphragmatic breathing the more did they experience success. We hypothesize that some of the following factors contributed to the students’ improvement.
- Learning through self-mastery as an education approach versus clinical treatment.
- Generalizing the skills into daily life and activities. Practicing the skills during the day in which the cue of a stress reaction triggered the person to breathe slowly. The breathing would reduce the sympathetic activation.
- Interrupting escalating sympathetic arousal. Responding with an intervention reduced the sense of being overwhelmed and unable to cope by the participant by taking charge and performing an active task.
- Redirecting attention and thoughts away from the anxiety triggers to a positive task.
- Increasing heart rate variability. Through slow breathing heart rate variability increased which enhanced sympathetic parasympathetic balance.
- Reducing subclinical hyperventilation by breathing slower and thereby increasing pC02.
- Increasing social support by meeting in small groups. The class discussion group normalized the anxiety experiences.
- Providing hope. The class lectures, assigned readings and videos provide hope; since, it included reports how other students had reversed their chronic disorders such as irritable bowel disease, acid reflux, psoriasis with behavioral interventions.
Although the study lacked a control group and is only based upon self-report, it offers an economical non-pharmaceutical approach to reduce anxiety. These stress management strategies may not resolve anxiety for everyone. Nevertheless, we recommend that schools implement this approach as the first education intervention to improve health in which students are taught about stress management, learn and practice relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing and then practice these skills during the day whenever they experience stress or dysfunctional breathing.
I noticed that breathing helped tremendously with my anxiety. I was able to feel okay without having that dreadful feeling stay in my chest and I felt it escape in my exhales. I also felt that I was able to breathe deeper and relax better altogether. It was therapeutic, I felt more present, aware, and energized.
See the following blogs for detailed breathing instructions
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