When COVID-19 swept the U.S. and the world, psychology major Sullivan Ray ’22 saw an opportunity to study mindfulness practices and their effectiveness in the ultra-stressful environment of a pandemic.
Let’s face it, stress is part of every college student’s life — even in the best of times. Denison’s Health and Wellness Center provides a wealth of mindfulness resources to students to help combat the stress and anxiety of busy lives filled with challenges and responsibilities. One of these resources is Koru Mindfulness, a four-week mindfulness-based training program. Koru teaches participants how to gain greater awareness and acceptance of their thoughts and feelings and to cope with setbacks, disappointments, and hardships rather than becoming overwhelmed by them.
Ray took the Koru training and recognized a unique opportunity to do research. At the beginning of Spring Semester 2020, she and Psychology Professor Robert Weis investigated the effects of mindfulness training with two groups of Denison students: one group who participated in the Koru program and the other group who served as a control.
During the four weeks of training, students in the Koru group met weekly to learn mindfulness strategies and participated in daily homework activities to practice their skills. The Koru program finished shortly before Spring Break - the same time COVID-19 reached the Midwest and students were sent home to finish the semester remotely.
The timing of COVID-19 provided a natural experiment to investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness as a means to cope with intense stress and anxiety. Students who participated in Koru reported less stress and anxiety than students in the control group. Koru participants also experienced better sleep and earned higher scores on objective measures of attention and concentration than controls. Moreover, increased mindfulness explained these benefits: the more students practiced mindfulness in their daily lives, the greater their improvement. These findings were maintained over the semester, even after students returned home.
Their study, “Mindfulness as a Way to Cope with COVID-19-Related Stress and Anxiety” was published in a special issue of Counseling and Psychotherapy Research focusing on psychosocial interventions for COVID-19. The study was supported by grants from Denison’s Anderson Summer Science Research Program and a Kim Sharfstein Research Fellowship. Ray and Weis will also present their research at a virtual conference this Spring.
Sullivan Ray ’22 is a Psychology and Spanish double-major from Lexington, Virginia.