Stress to approve everything, to get a better average or to have started studying late; for feeling too alone or for classes on very demanding occasions. Problems derived from poor stress management (such as anxiety and mood disorders) are the main reason why students go to the psychological services of universities, and the reason why the Faculty of Education of the Complutense University of Madrid and the Affinity Foundation have developed Compludog, a assisted therapy intervention with dogs which has served to improve the levels of stress (perceived and physiological), well-being and social skills of the 53 freshmen between 18 and 25 who have participated in the pilot program.
“First-year students suffer higher stress levels and have less social relationships than the rest, since they have just been incorporated into a new unknown environment, where they also feel a lot of pressure,” explains Diana Peña, an expert in animal-assisted therapies. and program coordinator. Although it is a pioneer initiative in Spain, Similar consolidated programs already exist in prestigious universities such as Harvard or Yale. It was only necessary to adapt it to the Spanish academic environment, “since in the United States it is usually very common for students to have a feeling of homesickness that is not so normal here, since most of the time you study in the same community autonomous in which your family lives ”. The good results have led the Madrid institution to confirm the continuation of the program, that this course will be implemented in at least two more centers at the headquarters of Moncloa and Somosaguas.
Contrary to what one might think, experts indicate that academic stress is not always bad. Below a certain level, it is beneficial, "since it facilitates a predisposition to activate us and face the challenges that lie ahead, in this case the exams", explains María Robles-Martínez, doctor in Psychiatry from the University of Cádiz . But when it exceeds a certain level, it can affect both academic performance and emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships of students: 35% of them suffer anxiety from academic tests, according to the University of Almeria, and 60% suffer some episode (of stress or anxiety) throughout their studies, according to Nascia centers.
Short and medium term beneficial effects
The students who participated (mostly women, predominantly in the Faculty of Education) did so over three one-hour sessions in three consecutive weeks, so that the last one was about 15 days before the exams began. "Thus, they can concentrate on the study, but the benefits they have obtained from the program still remain," says Peña. Each of the animals, he adds, has its own personality, which is very useful to adapt to each person: “Skot has always been a blanket dog, relaxing; You lie with me and caress me. Lupi was a bitch who was abandoned, and has had a more complicated life, which helps us to work with students who are like that, which you usually have trouble accessing. And for Pepo, a nine-year-old Labrador mongrel that looks like a puppy, everything is game and fun. ”
But how is the program developed? In the first session, A climate of trust is created, which makes it easier for students, dogs and professionals to meet and feel comfortable working together, and explain how to treat and reward dogs. In the second, "We explain to them what dogs say and how we should behave with them, how many types of tail movements there are, what it means to be yawning or being licking … And then all this we pass to the human being: what people tell us and how we communicate with them, through a role-play ", argues Peña. In the third and last, a relaxation is practiced in which the participants lie down with the dogs and read a story or are simply silent, depending on what comes up. “There we make an emotional opening, in which students are asked to tell the best or the worst experience that they consider they have lived in their life, freely. Not everyone has to tell; They do it voluntarily: we have realized that, in the end, they support each other, because there is a safe and confident environment that gives rise to many emotional reactions. ”
The effectiveness of assisted therapy is measured scientifically: in animal visit programs such as this one, it is sought to modify the endocrine responses that are generated in stressful situations and to balance cortisol, epinephrine and neopinephrine levels thanks to animal contact. Therefore, the research team of the Faculty of Education performed three salivary cortisol measurements: two weeks before starting the program, to establish the levels with which they started; two weeks after the last session, and at six weeks, during the exam time, to observe the effects in the medium term. In turn, samples were also collected from 40 students of the same grade who did not actively participate in the program, in order to compare them. In the first measurement, the stress levels of these students and those who did participate were similarly high; in the second, this level dropped for those who participated in the interventions; and in the last one, the stress of the control group was higher than at the beginning, while the students of the program did not reach the initial levels.
How to avoid stress during exam time?
For Mencía Ruiz, director of Psychological, Educational and Social Care Service from Loyola University, the prolonged tension caused by academic examinations is manifested through a triple response: physiological, cognitive and behavioral. “University students experience a deterioration of sleep linked to stress and anxiety, which in turn is associated with academic malfunction and the risk of developing psychopathological problems. At the cognitive level, negative automatic thoughts of the type "I'm going to suspend everything" or "I'm a failure" appear, and low self-esteem, "he explains. And at the behavioral level, low performance, general malfunction or a tendency to avoid or escape from certain situations can occur.
As already mentioned, stress can initially have positive effects that allow us to be more alert, see more clearly and respond effectively. However, if the pressure is excessive or prolonged “one enters a phase of resistance that is followed by another of exhaustion that exceeds the person. It is what is known as the stress curve, ”Ruiz illustrates. A state of excitement that ends up negatively affecting health, “through specific symptoms of fatigue such as insomnia, irritability, lack of concentration, exhaustion, organic imbalances that can finally trigger disorders such as anxiety and depression; there are studies that even endorse the harmful effects that stress can have on the immune system, ”adds the expert. Therefore, it is advisable to learn to handle moderate levels of stress for short periods of time, so that the necessary techniques are acquired for those situations that are above our limits.
To prevent stress from dominating us and becoming pathological, it is advisable to follow a series of guidelines that María Robles Martínez summarizes in this Decalogue of good practices:
- The most important thing is to identify academic stress; understand that, although it is not an easy stage, it will soon pass.
- Plan the study time properly, throughout the period in which the subject is being given. So it will be possible to get to the exam with everything read at least once. It is desirable that the notes are already prepared to suit each one.
- Sleep the necessary time to ensure a good rest; The dream is essential to memorize the information learned during the day.
- Studying in a place where we feel comfortable is essential, to concentrate better.
- Minimize distractions (especially mobile).
- Caring for food will help us manage stress.
- Take breaks every hour or hour and a half, since after that time the attention, concentration and memorization capacity begin to decrease, and the stress increases proportionally.
- It is also essential to rest after studying, exercise and engage in activities that are considered pleasant. This helps to release endorphins and feel better.
- Do not abuse stimulants such as coffee, Coca-Cola or energy drinks because, even if they keep us awake, they can later generate more stress.
- For people who are more nervous or have a tendency to have a hard time during periods of greater academic stress, it may be very beneficial to practice relaxation or meditation techniques.
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