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My experience with Ohio State’s stress management training

The SMART lab uses biofeedback technology to amplify a body signal, such as heart rate variability, and provides feedback, allowing users to see their heart rate data in real-time. Credit: Hannah Dunlap | For the Lantern

With finals week just around the corner, I made an appointment with Ohio State’s stress management and resilience training, known as the SMART lab, to see how the practice could help with an increase of stress.

The lab — which opened February in the Student Wellness Center — logged over 100 student-users in November.

There are a variety of options available to students and faculty to learn how to cope with stress within the lab, such as a heart rate variability biofeedback session, a relaxation group session or a meditation session.

One of the staples of the SMART Lab is the HRV biofeedback, said Dr. Paul Granello, creator of the lab and associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies.

“Biofeedback uses technology to amplify a body signal, such as heart rate variability, and provides feedback,” he said, adding that users are able to see the data in real-time. Because of this, individuals can see how their bodies are affected by their emotional state and can shape their behavior around the information.

My 30-minute, individual feedback session was run by a doctoral student, Damon Drew. I sat at a computer as Drew directed me through the process.

First, I completed short demographic and stress-level surveys. The stress-level survey contained questions inquiring on if I felt stressed or nervous in the past month, if I had been angry over things I could not control or if I felt like I could not handle my academic or personal endeavors.

I answered each question with a resounding yes.

After the surveys, I attached a clip to my earlobe that could trace my pulse. The clip transmits information to a computer, which then translates the information into a coherence score — a high score means the user is relaxed, a low score means the user is not.

Coherence and heart rate are inversely related, meaning the lower the heart rate, the higher the coherence and the more relaxed the user is.

First, I did a two-minute breathing exercise that consisted of repeated five-second inhales and exhales. Then for five minutes I could breathe at my own pace. During this activity, I was able to identify my heart rate and my coherence levels on screen.

Someone who is relaxed will have a very smooth heart rate that appears on screen in the same pattern as a sound wave. When the user inhales, a line will curve upward, and as they exhale, the line will curve downward. When someone is not relaxed, jagged spikes that disrupt the flow of a normal heart rate are displayed.

Throughout this exercise my coherence level remained at 100 percent, meaning I was calm, and for the most part my breathing was consistent. I tried to keep my mind focused on my breathing, but I let my thoughts stray at times.

When I thought about my course load and all of the homework I had, a disruption in my heart rate immediately showed on the screen, which was extremely unsettling to watch.

For my third and final breathing exercise, I did the same breathing, but instead of watching my actual heart rate, I watched a ball move along what looked like a uniform sound wave, representing my breathing and heart rate. As the ball moved uphill, I inhaled, and as it moved back down, I exhaled.

The game-like nature made it easier to keep unwelcome stressors out of my head.

It’s easy to get caught up in the stressors that pair with finals week. After visiting the SMART lab, I found a calming way to better my breathing patterns, which helped me relax during an anxiety-filled time.

HRV biofeedback gave me meaningful tools to relieve my stress that will affect my physical and mental health.

Individual biofeedback sessions, such as the one I took, are available at the SMART lab Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.

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