I’ve recently been delving into the strategies British university are taking to cope with stress and anxiety among their student populations. The problem is rife: traditional counselling services have been unable to cope with demand, with knock-on effects on waiting times for services.
Perhaps as a result, it seems that universities are keen to trial new strategies, including ones with an ’embodied’ approach. One example is the ‘Calm to the Core’ programme of classes at Durham University which aims to improve embodied awareness and a sense of agency over anxious symptoms.
Another programme is the BodyMind approach at the University of Hertfordshire, pioneered by Professor Helen Payne. She explains that, when we assess stimuli in our environment for their potential threat, these stimuli are always received in our ‘BodyMind’. If the perceived threat is unresolved for whatever reason, it therefore follows that our whole BodyMind will get stuck in harmful fight, flight or freeze reflexes. Although this ‘stuckness’ can be altered through the body or the mind, Professor Payne maintains that it can be resolved more effectively through both at the same time. This is where embodied practices come in, which can regulate our mood and our stress levels through the release of hormones such as dopamine.
The BodyMind approach resonates strongly with the practice of the Alexander Technique. That’s because the central competency or skill which the Alexander Technique aims to pass on is how to prevent the stimuli around us triggering harmful habits of physical or mental tension. In essence, if you are able to embody this skill, you can more quickly return to emotional and physical equilibrium. Owing to its holistic approach, not only does the Alexander Technique empower students to understand and deal with mental stress and anxiety, but also very practically teaches them how to look after their bodies as they study (for example, by making working at a laptop more comfortable).
The Alexander Technique has already supported thousands of students at the most prestigious tertiary arts institutions in the UK for decades (see here for a list). However, its benefits have yet to be experienced by the wider student population through university counselling services. I, for one, would be very keen to see British universities embrace its potential in this regard.