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Sit back, relax: Biofeedback, stress lab help students ease anxiety

Programs work to aid, prevent mental health issues on campus

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Bradley University graduate student Jessica Depke, an intern at Heartland Community College, uses an Open Heart lab designed to teach Heartland students how to develop their own de-stressing techniques.

NORMAL — “Hi, I'm Herman. I am a place to lay back and relax.”

“Herman” is an over-sized bean bag chair that's part of Heartland Community College's Stress Reduction Lab. It is positioned under a fabric panel hanging from the ceiling that gives you the impression of laying down in a forest, gazing up through the trees.

Crickets chirp from a sound machine that also can be programmed to produce the sound of rain or ocean waves. There's a fishbowl with fish and even a special light to help those with seasonal affective disorder.

“This is where we practice mindfulness,” explained Faye Freeman-Smith, director of student counseling at Heartland. “Mindfulness is when you take in the moment without judging it.”

She said mindfulness quiets the brain, lowers blood pressure and improves memory.

The stress lab is one way Heartland attempts to help students with mental health problems or — better yet — prevent them from developing problems that require professional intervention.

Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities also offer a variety of stress-relieving activities and workshops in addition to group and individual counseling sessions to counter increased anxiety and other mental health issues on today's college campuses.

Activities range from visits by therapy dogs — and even therapy horses — to computer-linked biofeedback training.

ISU offers individual, group and couples therapy along with crisis intervention and anxiety workshops.


Heartland Community College student Abigail Tyler of Normal interacts with Millie, a service dog owned by Amy Humphreys, dean of continuing education, as part of the school's counseling services programming. Service dogs are extremely popular with college students across the country, helping students deal with stress.

An online program, called Well Track, has modules about stress, anxiety, depression and public speaking anxiety.

During a recent two-week period, Well Track with crisis intervention and anxiety workshops had 200 new users, said Sandy Colbs, director of ISU Student Counseling Services. Eighty percent of users reported doing better after using Well Track, she said.

The university also continues to refine a four-session anxiety workshop it has offered for three or four years, said Colbs.


Faye Freeman-Smith, left, director of Student Counseling Services at Heartland Community College, tells student Quinnie Calvert how to use a bio feedback app designed to teach the user how to reduce stress without the device at a later date. Much of the work of Student Counseling Services is designed to teach people how to deal with stress from within.

Illinois Wesleyan has focused on coping skills, early detection of issues and health education outreach.

In addition to workshops and counseling, IWU has  worked on a “Let's Talk” campaign, having a counselor in rotating locations on campus, rather than an office, at least once a week, said Annorah Moorman, assistant vice president for student affairs and executive director of counseling and heath services.

IWU also has a “stress-free zone” — a room with a massage chair, biofeedback, stress balls, soothing scenic pictures and a sun lamp. Money for the room was donated by an alumnus.

A big part of Heartland's stress lab is teaching students how to help themselves. A worksheet helps identify what meditation style would be most helpful, explained Freeman-Smith.

The different sections have names such as Focus, Quiet Mind and Open Heat. Last year, about 80 students used the lab.


Heartland Community College student Quinnie Calvert of Clinton tries out Heartland's Stress Reduction Lab. The lab consists of several rooms, including this suite that provides light therapy for seasonal affective disorder and a large bean bag with overhead foliage scene to allow for a break from the stress of the classroom.

Jessica Depke, a graduate student from Gurnee studying clinical mental health at Bradley University, is interning at Heartland, teaching people to use biofeedback.

One device, called Muse, consists of a special headband worn across the forehead and behind the ears that detects brain activity.

Connected to a phone app, the user hears the sounds of a thunderstorm when Muse detects a lot of activity in a certain part of the brain. As users quiet their minds and control their breathing, the device switches from a thunderstorm to heavy rain, then a gentle shower, then to the sound of birds singing.

“When you hear the birds come out, you're most relaxed,” said Freeman-Smith.

Another biofeedback device, hooked to a computer, measures the space between heartbeats and reflects changes as you relax.

The goal is to remember what it feels like when you reach the proper balance and achieve that state without the device, said Freeman-Smith. 

With sites in Pontiac and Lincoln as well as Normal, Heartland faces additional challenges delivering services to its students. Last year the college added videoconferencing to its distance counseling options.

Freeman-Smith's advice to reduce stress is to slow down, be positive, focus on one task at a time and remember, “You can multitask but you can't multifocus.”

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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