Volume 6, Issue A ::: October 2002
A Mind/Body/Learning Approach to Counseling
Helping Students Handle Stress
by Marjorie Jacobs
Going back to school while working as an adult education teacher and counselor at the Community Learning Center (CLC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brought me face-to-face with my old test and school anxieties. They were heightened by limited time, raising teenagers of my own at home, caring for my spouse and an aging parent, and having responsibility for housekeeping chores. To ease my own tension, I started practicing Tai Chi, Qi Gong, yoga, and meditation on a regular basis.
In discussions with my students, I learned that they had no outlets for their stress, usually considerably more tension-provoking than mine. Despite a mandatory study skills workshop designed to empower them, many students were still missing classes because of health and motivational problems, weakening of commitment, poor time management skills, interference from job schedules, and family conflicts. I started to think that the best way to address the students' counseling and academic needs would be in an ongoing classroom setting.
At the same time, the CLC started to use the Massachusetts Department of Education's new student registration form. The form listed personal health goals dealing with stress reduction, nutrition, and improved self-confidence and self-esteem. Students could now potentially meet academic and health goals in one class. I realized that the opportunity had arrived for me to apply the knowledge, skills, and convictions I had acquired over the past 10 years in studying mind/body medicine and psychology.
At first my colleagues at the CLC were skeptical about the idea of my teaching a counseling class instead of one of our traditional adult basic education (ABE) or General Educational Development (GED) preparation classes. It represented a big change in both what and how we were teaching. I was suggesting teaching basic academic skills and providing group counseling through a health content format. Eventually, my co-workers supported my initial idea to offer a weekly, 1.5-hour, mixed-level, health education and counseling class for morning ABE and adult secondary education (ASE) students.
We began offering this class in September, 1999. It was so popular with the students that in September, 2000, a second counseling class, also meeting once a week for 1.5 hours, was added at the CLC for morning English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) advanced students. I call both the classes "health education" to remove any stigma associated with counseling and therefore attract more students. I incorporate reading, writing, speaking, listening, critical thinking, and study skills with health science content in both. We do not only vocabulary building, highlighting main ideas of paragraphs, and writing activities together but also aerobic exercise, stretching, yoga, meditation, and cognitive restructuring: learning to view things more optimistically and with a sense of humor. In the supportive atmosphere of the group, we openly discuss problems that students are having.
Stress Management and Creative Arts
Teaching health education has given me the freedom and flexibility to respond to students' interests and needs. At the beginning of each semester, students tell me what they want to explore and learn. To facilitate this process, I have them complete a questionnaire to find out which health-related topics and activities interest them.
This past school year, my students and I have worked on some stress management and expressive arts techniques. We practiced focusing the mind in the present moment to facilitate learning and counter the negative cognitive effects of stress (forgetfulness, distractibility, negativity, pessimism, anger, anxiety). I taught them how to do the simple exercises I do, as well as yoga stretches, sitting, walking, and standing meditation.
Based on the research of psychologist James Pennebaker (1997), who studied the power of writing in emotional and physical healing, I have promoted at-home journal writing in both health classes. My students experience the healing process and I get regular feedback on their interests, needs, likes, dislikes, and progress. In class, my students and I have taken writing a step further by experimenting with guided imagery and drawing to stimulate creative writing. I have used these expressive arts, which I was learning in a course at Lesley University, as a way for students to understand themselves better and gain self-confidence. Tapping into the creative process has improved students' writing and captivated their interest.
I first taught my students how to turn off the stress response and bring about the relaxation response, a state in which the mind/body is brought back to balance (relaxed state) and is no longer fighting or running away to protect itself from a perceived danger. During relaxation, our blood pressure decreases, heart beats slower, metabolism slows down, breathing deepens, and muscles loosen. We become more open and receptive to new ideas and ways of being in the world around us. Electroencephalographs, which record brain waves, provide evidence that our brains also slow down.
When I put the small cranberry on my palm, closing my eyes and softly breathing, I felt the cranberry was not only a piece of fruit but also a natural and living thing combining the rain, the soil, the seed and the season. I slowly put the acid cranberry into my mouth. When it melted in my mouth, I felt it integrate into my body, my soul, and even my mind. When I absorbed this cranberry, I also absorbed the essence of nature. I felt that I was also a member of our natural world, just like the cranberry absorbing the nutrition of the world and contributing to the world in return.
Finally, I felt I was becoming a cranberry, although only a small part of our organic world which, however, is important. This whole inner experience is somehow magical and significant to my mind. I think this special process of thinking is also a helpful psychological meditation for my mind's health. Jun He
Researchers Elmer and Alyce Green (1984) of the Menninger Foundation have described four types of brain waves or electrical rhythms that correspond to the stages of our mind or consciousness: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Beta waves are rapid (13 to 26 cycles per second) and occur during stressful, everyday life situations when we are dealing with the outside world or are involved in "active thinking." Our negative, fearful, or angry thoughts and detail-oriented thinking are associated with beta rhythms. The slower alpha brain waves (eight to 13 cycles per second) characterize the relaxed mind, where our focus is more inward, such as when we daydream or meditate. During this state, we are wide awake, but creative ideas or images arise from the unconscious mind. In other words, when we are relaxed, creative ideas just come to us. Instead of the mind going blank when we feel stressed about writing, ideas and images flow. Theta rhythms (four to eight cycles per second) bring us almost to the point of sleep. They produce a dream-like state filled with unconscious images, and we feel drowsy. Delta waves, the slowest brain waves (zero to four cycles per minute), occur during deep sleep.
I can see people walking around me. They feel good being next to me. They are looking for a place to rest. It seems to me that they know how easy it is to find peace under a tree. I feel the wind that brings the birds; they fly around and come to me. I spread my arms for them. I feel strong.
While the birds are singing, I'm laughing. I'm happy. I see men, women, and children playing in the playground. They are happy too. Happiness is in the air. I feel strong. It touches my soul.
The Greens conducted many studies on the relationship among the mind, creativity, health, and healing. They found that as participants' brain waves slowed down in alpha and theta states, they experience healing of physical disorders (i.e., high blood pressure) and the expression of creativity. These results happened naturally as soon as the body and mind calmed down and were free of stress and active or worried thinking. The students participating in their studies were taught how to slow down their own brain waves to bring about body/mind relaxation. Once relaxed in alpha or theta consciousness, participants reported having more images, increased energy, improved concentration, and creative thinking, all of which helped them in writing papers and taking tests. They even noted an increase in positive thoughts, a sense of empowerment, and openness to the possibility for change and growth.
Preparing for Creative Expression
Expressing our creativity, therefore, not only is beneficial for our health and learning but also makes us feel happy. We get a rush of energy and produce something that makes us feel good about ourselves. By setting favorable conditions in the classroom, we adult educators can help our students to reduce stress and express their creativity, leading to broader and more optimistic thinking.
First, however, we need to prepare the mind of the learner. I use movement and mindfulness meditation, starting with a five to 10 minute exercise to calm the body and stimulate creativity. When the blood is circulating, oxygen is feeding all the cells of the body, particularly those of the brain. With increased oxygen, the brain has more energy, and we feel alert. In the classroom, we dance, sing, chant, do some simple sitting/standing stretches or yoga postures, march in place, or even walk around the classroom.
After exercising, we turn the focus inward with a 10-minute mindfulness activity that slows down brain waves and stimulates creative expression. I remind students not to worry about how they look or whether they we are doing an activity correctly or not. We concentrate on doing only one thing very slowly, gently, and silently. Breathing can be a mindfulness activity if we observe the rhythm and sensations of each in-breath and out-breath. Or, we practice progressive muscle relaxation, starting with the face and working down to the feet, tightening and then relaxing different muscles. Sometimes we do a guided imagery activity, free writing, or draw pictures to practice mindfulness.
Almost any activity can be performed mindfully. One of my favorites is to eat a dried cranberry mindfully. I have students select one berry and hold it in their left hand. They examine its texture and shape, notice how it feels in their hand, and then smell it. I ask them to think about how that piece of fruit grew and became what it is and how it got to them. Then, I tell them to put it in their mouth and let it rest on their tongue, noticing any changes in their mouth. Next, they bite into it so that they have two pieces of fruit in their mouth. Lastly, I instruct them to eat the fruit as slowly as they can with the thought that it could be the only food they will eat all day.
After eating a dried cranberry mindfully, I ask the students to write as much as they can, in the present tense, beginning with "I am a cranberry." At the end of the class, students share their writings, thoughts, and feelings about the creative process. They report feeling happy, proud of themselves, energized, and relaxed. The boxed text provides some examples of ABE and ESOL students' writings from such a class on mindfully eating a cranberry.
I am a cranberry, and I enjoy that I grew up under sun light with a nice view. I remember the people taking care of me and how proud I was. I felt like a VIP. I'm used to enjoying myself, and I never think about the future even though one day I heard people talking that my time was coming up to be taken away.
But what has happened here? Hey! It's so hot! I can't breathe. I am suffocating. Why am I drying up? Oh, I'm getting smaller and smaller, and that's not right. What is this box, and it's so dark here! It changed everything for me!
Now I'm another thing. I'm a dried cranberry, and I'm trying to enjoy my challenges. Now I like to be eaten from a nice person, to feel his soft tongue on my body, to feel his pleasure eating me. It will be a new feeling, and like every new experience, it's so exciting for me.
The student feedback from the health education classes has been overwhelmingly positive. In classroom discussions, specific writing assignments, and journal entries, students share their joy, energy, feelings of peacefulness, self-explorations, and heightened self-esteem. They report a decrease in negative emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration. Their enthusiasm has spread to other classmates who have not yet enrolled in health education, and we now have a growing waiting list for September classes.
In the three years that the CLC has been offering health education/counseling classes for morning students, all the GED students who have taken it have passed their GED exams and received their high school equivalency certificate. They even continued attending their other classes until the last week of school, unlike most of their classmates, whose attendance trailed off after registering for their tests. The GED graduates, almost all of them young adults, said they would not have stuck with the program if it had not been for their health class. It kept them motivated despite stress outside of the class and learning difficulties in the areas of writing and math. During the school year, none of the ABE students who attended the health class for at least three months dropped out of school.
I hope this approach to counseling will become part of the core program at the CLC and be seriously considered by other learning centers whose students could benefit from health education classes. As Derren Lewis-Peters, a 17-year-old student who completed his GED in June, 2002, writes,
Attending this class [ABE/ASE Health Education] has been an eye-opening journey filled with positivity and excitement. As I write this, on the eve of my last class, I can feel a sliver of sadness come over me, but I can rejoice in the fact that I've come away from this a smarter, wiser young man with a better understanding of myself and the people around me, all because of this one, fantastic class.
Green, E., & Green, A. (1984). "Psychophysiology and health: personal and transpersonal." In S. Grof (ed.) Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science. Ithaca, NY: State University of New York.
Pennebaker, J. (1997). Opening Up. NY, NY: Guilford Press.
About the Author
Marjorie Jacobs has been an adult educator at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the past 30 years. She is also a stress management consultant and health educator. She gives workshops on the mind/body/learning connection, stress reduction, meditation, and the External Elixir of Kung Fu. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.