Help for the overstressed student is on the way in the form of a “Mindfulness Meditation” program starting winter term at the Center for Student Health and Counseling at Portland State.
Dr. Mark Bajorek, medical director at the center, said the program will run on a continuing basis and offer two tracks, one for students to do on a drop-in basis at no charge. The second will operate on a prescriptive basis for patients referred by the Counseling and Psychological Services staff.
“The prescriptive program would be for students dealing with conflicts and being treated for stress disorders, anxiety,” Bajorek said. He said the general program may appeal to students who may already be practicing stress-reducing programs on their own, such as yoga.
“This is not associated with any religious program,” he said. Some meditation methods, such as Transcendental Meditation, do have a semi-religious bent. These often use mantras, which are certain words repeated over and over in the head. The system to be taught at Portland State will not use mantras. It will be offered on a drop-in basis, probably Tuesday mornings, and will possibly add an additional time later in the week.
“We decided that if we provide the space and instruction, it can be helpful to students who find stress and anxiety deterring them from being successful,” Bajorek said.
Students will meditate as a group. They will be taught by Layton Borkan, a clinical social worker at PSU and long-time meditator. Borkan has already trained the staff in the meditative techniques to be taught to students. Student sessions will run about 55 minutes, with a chime signaling the beginning and end of each session.
Meditation is a skill that is acquired through practice, Bajorek said. At first, the student may find it difficult to stay with it for more than 10 minutes and it takes continuing practice to improve.
“You learn the smaller pieces and work up to the larger picture,” Bajorek said. “It’s a commitment, like running.”
The basic strategy is classified as a stimulus-response procedure. It does not involve running a mantra through the brain. It emphasizes learning to get in touch with the body, getting in touch with one’s breathing, feeling the rib cage enlarging as the chest fills with air, using a body scan and other calming techniques.
When a disruptive thought intrudes, the meditator learns to think, “I’m not going to deal with this right now. I’m going to deal with this later or maybe not act on it at all.”
Bajorek became interested in meditation after reading published studies on its effect. He recalled one in which the meditators found they were able to control psoriasis. In another, it was found that the effects of flu vaccine lasted longer. He found studies that used meditation in dialectic behavioral therapy, with patients with anti-social personalities, for instance.
“Meditation is really useful,” he said. “It’s exceedingly helpful in chronic-pain control.” He said a number of universities and colleges are using it, citing the Universities of Texas, Vermont and Missouri. It is being used as an adjunct technique for furthering well-being and dealing with anxiety and depression.
The Portland State program will be based on a system developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the nationally recognized Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts medical center. He serves on the faculty of the medical school’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society, among other responsibilities. He conducts regular workshops on mindfulness and stress reduction and is the author of books on the subjects.
Bajorek said experience shows that the brain can change through time and he sees meditation as one tool in that potential change for the better.
“It would be interesting to see how much we can improve our life circumstances by giving ourselves a little time before we act on our circumstances,” Bajorek said. Meditation is designed to give the individual some of that time.