DUNMORE, Pa. — The demands of college can be extremely stressful for students under normal circumstances. But they’ve only become more pronounced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help students better navigate this difficult, uncertain terrain, the Prevention Education Consortium of NEPA is hosting a series of virtual “Mindfulness Matters: In Prevention” classes over the next month for students at seven area colleges, including Penn State Scranton.
The free classes, which are also open to faculty and staff members, started March 10 and will be held every Wednesday through April 28 beginning at 5 p.m. at this Zoom link.
Each class features a different theme, and participants will have the chance to win various raffle prizes.
Led by mindfulness instructor/practitioner Phillip Sallavanti of CALM of NEPA, the sessions are geared around reducing stress through the practice of mindfulness, a form of meditation that teaches one “to pay attention to the present on purpose, and non-judgmentally, with an attitude of openness, curiosity and kindness to ourselves and others,” Sallavanti said.
Mindfulness, Sallavanti added, strives to reconnect adherents with what is present and vital in their experience, and has been scientifically proven to enhance physical wellness and mental well-being, while also reducing stress and anxiety.
Developing a mindfulness practice can help college students in all areas of their lives, he said.
“Students are bombarded 24/7 with stimuli — most of them negative,” Sallavanti said. “Mindfulness can help students manage their emotions better by learning to respond to life instead of reacting to life, slowing life down just a bit to create a space where wise and skillful choices can emerge. Besides decreased reactivity, mindfulness increases curiosity, bringing in a playful quality to life, improved patience, self-acceptance and treating yourself with compassion instead of judgement. In other words, treating yourself like you would a best friend.”
Funded by the Lackawanna/Susquehanna Office of Drug and Alcohol Programs, the Prevention Education Consortium of NEPA is made up of staff from local colleges and agencies that focus on prevention and reducing the negative consequences associated with alcohol and drug use.
In addition to Penn State Scranton, the consortium’s affiliated schools are Lackawanna College, Keystone College, Marywood University, the University of Scranton, Misericordia University and Johnson College.
According to Tierny Ulmer Cresswell, consortium member and student wellness program coordinator at Lackawanna College, the consortium coordinates a fall and spring initiative each year for local college students. Due to the rise in mental health challenges students are currently facing, the group wanted to focus on a topic that would assist students in combating those challenges but also provide them with a new skill that could be used as a drug and alcohol prevention tool. Mindfulness checked all the boxes, Cresswell said.
“College is typically a time of transition, high pressure and stress. Now, with the pandemic, we are seeing even higher levels of stress being placed on students. Mindfulness is a way students can cope and work through the stress of college and, now, the pandemic,” Cresswell said. “As a consortium working in alcohol and drug prevention, we are always looking at ways to strengthen our students’ protective factors against using substances. In this case, we are looking at mindfulness and healthy coping strategies as a protective factor. The stronger those protective factors are, the less likely a student will use drugs or alcohol.”
Scranton campus nurse and consortium member Jill Thoman said it’s greatly beneficial for students to realize they can control some of their responses to stress and anxiety through healthy practices like mindfulness.
“We all can get stressed due to approaching deadlines, family life, work life, and the pandemic has really exacerbated those anxiety levels,” Thoman said.
“When I would do stress reduction with the campus PAWS groups, I would show them what happens physically when they stop for just a moment and breathe. I have a pulse oximeter that shows them how their heart rate drops when they take the time to focus and breathe," said Thoman. "When our heart rate goes down, our blood pressure goes down and it allows for a sense of calm, even if for a moment. This meditation and breathing needs to be practiced, and if we practice it enough, we'll develop a habit of taking that minute as soon as we recognize our thoughts racing and stress levels rising. When that doesn't work, then it's a good thing to talk with someone about those feelings and identify some other techniques that can help.”
Sallavanti has worked with several of the consortium’s affiliated schools in the past and came highly recommended, Cresswell said.
“Phil is a wonderful asset to any institution in bringing mindfulness and meditation practices to students,” she said.
At the first “Mindfulness Matters” class, Sallavanti led participants through a few guided mindfulness exercises, including a “body scan” where everyone closed their eyes and focused on the feeling of various body parts as a way to clear the mind and stay in the present moment.
Freshman adult learner Jessica Kehl was among the Scranton students in attendance. She had never tried mindfulness before, but figured it might prove a useful way to reduce her stress levels.
“I will say, it did truly bring me some stress relief when we meditated, to focus on my breathing, to just be in the moment,” Kehl said. “I’m going to try to attend more sessions, and I’m also going to try meditating on my own at home. I think this would definitely benefit other students.”
Cresswell said she hopes many other students, faculty and staff members give the sessions a try during the coming weeks. Who knows, they might just come away from the experience with a healthy new habit.
“Studies have shown it is a worthwhile skill to practice mindfulness, and we hope students can add this to their toolbox in regards to coping with the challenges they are facing,” she said.
“This is the most important practice I ever took up, and it changed my life,” Sallavanti said.
The remaining “Mindfulness Matters” sessions will focus on the following topics:
- March 24: "What Is Stress? Recognizing Stress and Tools to Cultivate the Relaxation Response"
- March 31: "The Healing Power of Self-Compassion; How to Cultivate Self-Compassion"
- April 7: "The Habit Loop: How the Mind Works and Creates Habits; Using Mindfulness and Awareness to Break the Cycle"
- April 14: "Thoughts: Where They Come From and Where They Go; How to Become the Observer of Thoughts"
- April 21: "Interpersonal Communication: How to Communicate Mindfully and How to Listen Mindfully"
- April 28: "More Tools to Combat Stress and Anxieties; Mindful Movement: Finding Stillness in the Flow"