Students in holistic health classes able to weather stress of school, life

Students looking at biofeedback data on a computer screen

Students in the “Holistic Health 430: Foundation of Biofeedback and Self Regulation” class, from left, Garrett Peuse, Melanie Ruperto and Barbara Ribeiro, explore the level of muscle tension as monitored by electromyography.

Since the 1970s, Professor Erik Peper has been teaching students how to manage stress

As midterms loom and stress begins to take a toll on student health, those in Professor of Health Education Erik Peper’s holistic health classes may have an advantage over other students. They’re learning valuable self-care and stress management techniques that can help them navigate school and life more easily for years to come. 

Every semester, students in Peper’s classes learn techniques to combat stress, which include relaxation exercises, visualizations, biofeedback skills and mindfulness practices. The classes often culminate with a project where students identify personal health issues or goals and develop plans to address them. 

Eighty percent of those students report significant improvements in health, Peper said. One of these success stories was recently featured in a case study in the journal for the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The student, a 20-year-old woman identified in the study as Melinda, suffered recurring migraines since she was 14, according to the case study. She said she suffered at least four migraines a week and was taking medication to manage her discomfort. After learning self-regulation, biofeedback and body awareness techniques, such as breathing exercises, posture changes and mindfulness, they disappeared.

“At the 20-month follow-up, the student continued to be headache-free,” Peper said in the case study. “This type of integrated self-healing educational approach is recommended for students, patients and anyone who wants to create lasting health changes.”

Part of the student’s success rested on the fact that the approach was educational rather than clinical. When patients seek treatment for a health issue from a doctor they may see themselves as deficient, according to the study. “Students typically perceive themselves as basically healthy and becoming more competent,” according to the study. “As a result, they are more willing to engage in exploratory practices, such as those involved in the class assignment — with an attitude of ‘let’s see what happens.’”

SF State senior Luciana Marie Silva was in two of Peper’s holistic health classes and also tried to target her chronic headaches for her personal health project. “I started the project with really heavy headaches because I would work eight hours straight,” she said. “The self-healing project helped me realize I had control over my headaches.” She learned breathing techniques and used those when she started feeling stressed, eliminating the headaches, she said. She hasn’t had a regular problem with migraines since.

Peper’s students learn how thoughts affect the body and vice versa, Peper said. “Instead of being victims, students can take charge. We live in a world where health care isn’t always available, so the class focus is on cognitive and behavioral strategies to improve well-being,” he added.

The benefits from Peper’s classes are twofold: professional and personal. In addition to getting relief from physical ailments, several of his students have published their projects as abstracts in scientific journals or even presented their research projects at scientific meetings. “The meetings are really remarkable for students because they are undergraduates and all the other presenters are doctoral candidates or Ph.D.s,” said Peper. “It’s an experience most students don’t have, so they are really opening up their boundaries.”

For students who have yet to take a holistic health class, Peper has tips that can improve health during midterms and finals.  

  1. Don’t go to class ready to absorb information like a sponge; arrive primed with questions so you’re actively listening.
  2. Try to snag a seat in the front of the class and take notes.
  3. After class, find a study group with peers so you can discuss materials in multisensory ways.
  4. After studying, call a friend and talk about what you just absorbed. This helps the information sink in.
  5. Consider reviewing materials before going to bed, so it’s fresh in your mind when you wake up.
  6. Learn a simple relaxation technique, such as tightening and releasing various muscle groups in your body.
  7. Notify instructors as soon as you have questions.
  8. Learn a breathing exercise.
  9. When studying, sit at a desk and avoid checking emails and social media.  
  10. Learn more holistic health concepts and skills by taking holistic health classes.