MU Stressbusters program aims to relieve student stress

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 | 4:59 p.m. CDT; updated 9:19 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 21, 2010
MU sophomore Alysa Cairer gives a back rub to MU senior Betsey Emshoff at the MU Medical Building on April 14. Cairer is a volunteer with Stressbusters, a national program that MU adopted this semester to help battle student stress.

*CORRECTION: Jordan Friedman, founder of Stressbusters, is a prevention education consultant. An earlier version of this story misidentified his current university affiliation.

COLUMBIA — When MU sophomore Sarah Davis entered her Stressbusters' training session, the room felt a little tense, she said. Then the students began giving each other back rubs, practicing to become "busters" for the Stressbusters program, and everyone seemed to loosen up. Literally.

"You could tell it was a different kind of atmosphere once we had all gotten massages," Davis said.

Upcoming Stressbusters events

MU Stressbusters has two more open events this semester. Free back rubs will be given from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday and from 3 to 4 p.m. May 5. Both events are in Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union, MU. 

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It’s no secret that college students are stressed out. In a 2009 study done by the Associated Press and mtvU, 85 percent of college students said they felt stressed on a daily basis. And stress hurts more than a student’s mental well-being. Data from the National College Health Assessment consistently cites stress as the number one factor in poor academic performance.

This semester, the MU Student Health Center is working to combat student stress with Stressbusters, which promotes relaxation with free five- to seven-minute back rubs. Program creator Jordan Friedman* said MU is the first public institution to adopt the nationwide program, which is used in several private universities.

Terry Wilson, director of health promotion at the Student Health Center, began looking at the program in February 2009 as an addition to the center's developing stress management program.

"Stress without good coping strategies really gets in the way of clear thinking," Wilson said. "Over time, stress long-term can really impact our immune system ... and we see that here at the Student Health Center."

She said students are often drawn to unhealthy stress coping mechanisms — alcohol misuse, tobacco use and changes in food behaviors — so adequate stress management resources arenecessary. "This is a really wonderful way to meet that need," Wilson said. "Just to take a break, just to regroup and rebalance."

To adopt the program, the health center paid a one-time fee 0f $15,000, which included training time, Friedman's visits, marketing materials and ongoing program support. Ann Nadler, director of administrative services for the Student Health Center, said Friedman gave MU a lower cost to encourage the program in a public university.

Friedman said start-up costs range from $9,500 to $18,000. Starting this spring, schools adding the program will pay an annual membership fee as well.

Events and busters

Pam Roe, spokeswoman for MU Student Health Center, said Stressbusters schedules back massage events on campus that are open to all students, but student organizations can also request Stressbusters to work at their own events. The events also serve as a way to give students information on the health center.

Courtney McLain, student coordinator of Stressbusters at MU, said the program often gains student volunteers, known as “busters,” after they get back rubs at events. Thanks to this, an MU announcement and word of mouth, Roe said, it's been easy to find volunteers for the program.

"Most of them said the reason they want to get involved is because they want to help make students' lives better," Roe said.

Davis heard about Stressbusters through the MU announcement and applied with a friend. She's in the first group of students to be trained as busters at MU.

“It was pretty awesome to feel like you’re the starter of something,” Davis said.

McLain said Friedman, Wilson and a licensed massage therapist train Stressbusters volunteers. Friedman, who traveled to Columbia for the program's start-up, said trainees learn how to communicate with students during a back rub and practice specific and appropriate back-rubbing techniques.

“People are surprised at how well we are able to do it,” Davis said.

She admits that she found the back rub concept peculiar at first. “I thought, 'Do people actually want to be touched by other people they don’t know?'” she said.

Stressbusters creator Friedman said the answer is yes. Supportive touch “is important to emotional wellness and even academic performance,” he said.

A 2005 study by the University of Illinois found that one-time back rubs reduced anxiety while short back rubs over time reduced depression and pain, according to the Stressbusters website. Back rubs are also done in public places with approved techniques and participant consent.

Stressbusters nationwide

Friedman started Stressbusters at Columbia University in 1996. As then director of the university’s health promotion program, he said he wanted to give students a convenient method of stress relief.

“The program’s events turned out to be great places to talk about health topics and resources on campus,” he said.

The MU Stressbusters program joins ones at Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, St. Johns, New York and Washington universities. Washington University in St. Louis adopted a Stressbusters program in February 2009.

"We knew we needed to do more outreach on the subject of stress," said Melissa Ruwitch, chief of health promotion services there.  "We wanted to reach out at community events in a bigger way."

The program has received overwhelmingly positive feedback. “We get more and more students involved every semester,” Ruwitch said. “The events are well-attended and it’s going really strongly.”

Courtney Stein, health promotion manager for the New York University Student Health Center, said NYU implemented the Stressbusters program in spring 2008.

"Stress contributes to so many wellness concerns including poor grades, sleep difficulties, emotional distress, difficulty with relationships and physical illness among others," Stein said. "We wanted to provide our students with relaxation opportunities that would encourage them to practice protective health behaviors."

NYU students have reported feeling less overwhelmed and having lower levels of stress, loneliness and muscle tension after taking part in Stressbusters, Stein said.

Wilson said students respond to questions before and after their back rubs to gauge the change in stress levels. "They're having a good experience with this," she said. "We get things like, 'Amazing' and 'This is a great idea.'" She also said students often say they're glad the health center has the service. McLain said students have reported improved stress levels and feeling more capable of work after participating in a Stressbusters back rub.

Roe said busters at MU have given more than 500 back rubs since mid-February. More than 70 volunteers have been trained with the program.

Off college campuses, stress continues to be a problem. Wilson said that in a national study of patients accessing primary health care, stress was a contributing factor in 70 percent of reported symptoms.

Friedman sees his program as part of the bigger battle against stress in society. He said it's a way to combat the stressed-out norm that causes health issues, and he hopes to expand the program to all campuses nationwide. Stressbusters "sends a very visible message that nonstop stress isn't the only road to success," he said.

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