Health education classes help anxious college students handle stress, study finds

Photo (c) Piotr Marcinski - Fotolia

Experts say these types of courses could also be beneficial for overall mental health

High levels of stress among college students has prompted experts to explore ways to combat anxiety, and recent studies have suggested that breathing techniques and petting dogs can be helpful. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Binghamton University looked at how college students can shift their perspectives about stress. According to their findings, taking a health education class could help students who are prone to nervousness change their attitudes about stress. 

“This is important for several reasons,” said researcher Jennifer Wegmann. “First, helping students develop a more positive or enhancing stress mindset has been associated with improved mental health, increased performance and productivity. Second, general health education courses are available to large numbers of students. There typically are few, if any, stress-specific courses offered on college campuses, and if they are offered, many are limited in student capacity.” 

Personality affects perception

The researchers were interested in understanding two primary concepts: how health education courses can help students’ perceptions about stress and how personality type is connected to that change in perception. They conducted a survey of over 420 college students enrolled in a health education course that asked questions about their personalities and how they thought about and experienced stress. When it came to analyzing personality, the researchers focused on five main traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. 

Ultimately, the study revealed that personality type plays a big role in the likelihood that students change their ideas about stress. The researchers learned that those who were more likely to be nervous in general were the ones who experienced the biggest shift in perception. Learning about health and wellness allowed them to approach things from a different perspective and caused them to focus less on stress. 

“It appears that engaging in health education is beneficial in changing perceptions of stress for some students but not all -- based on personality,” said Wegmann. “For example, significant changes were elicited in students who scored higher on the neuroticism scale, but no significance was shown for students on the extraversion scale. The findings of this research show how focusing on their health, in general, can change these typically high-stressed students’ beliefs about the stress they experience.” 

Finding more wide-reaching solutions

While these findings were positive for students prone to anxiety and neuroticism, the researchers hope that more work can be done to find more comprehensive solutions to help all college students reduce stress -- regardless of their personality types. 

“According to our research, this approach was not helpful for everyone,” Wegmann said. “While these findings are providing novel and interesting information, as a stress researcher who works to help students become more productive and healthy, I want to know what other avenues will reach our students.” 

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