During a student fair in the fall, Stressbusters Samantha Meier ’12 (from left), Mishal Rahman ’13, and Gary Carlson ’13 offered up their stress-busting services. The next Stressbusters training will be in February.

Campus & Community

Calming influence

5 min read

Stressbusters program helps to lessen pressures of College life

Yoshira Cardenas ’12 loves getting a back rub. In fact, she enjoys the concept so much that she can’t keep it to herself. So, each week, Cardenas travels around campus with fellow Harvard undergraduates to knead the tension out of the necks and shoulders of classmates. She says that, when it comes to massage, giving one is almost as good as getting one.

“I love what I do because it makes people happy and also serves as a method of stress relief for me,” she said. “I don’t think about homework while I give a back rub; I concentrate on providing a good experience for my classmate.”

Cardenas is the student coordinator of Stressbusters, a group of undergraduates who provide classmates with a healthy way to manage the pressures of exams, papers, and College life in general. She and her cohorts bring free back rubs to students who have neither the time nor the money for professional massage — or who simply wake up with a stiff neck after huddling over a laptop for 10-12 hours at a stretch — in dorms and Houses across campus.

“Our goal is to bring relaxation and happiness to the Harvard community,” Cardenas said. “We want to alleviate students’ stress and promote the importance of self-care and of being physically and mentally healthy.“

Stressbusters was created in 1996 by Jordan Friedman when he was director of Columbia University’s health education program, and has grown into a national initiative that trains college students in stress prevention and management. The program came to Harvard in 2009 when Jeanne Mahon, director of the University’s Center for Wellness, saw the impact that it was having at other schools. Friedman’s own website claims that Stressbusters “now connects nearly 200,000 students and staff with stress reduction and wellness information” at campuses around the country.

“I met with Friedman and was intrigued by the idea of a hands-on program, so to speak,” said Mahon, who is Stressbusters’ campus supervisor. “Research has shown that even five- to seven-minute back rubs lead to lower levels of cortisol [a hormone released in response to stress] and lower blood pressure. I also loved the idea that students would be helping to care for each other. So we brought in an initial group of students and had one of our massage therapists train them.”

Today, the program is growing fast. Harvard Stressbusters gave around 1,200 back rubs in 172 hours at 44 events around campus in the 2010-11 academic year. As the fall semester draws to a close, students have already provided about 780 back rubs at 25 events, a pace that by next June could easily surpass last year’s numbers. Mahon said that, by the middle of October, the group was already booked solid through the end of the term.

“We started with two events a week,” she said. “Then we did a training in October and got a new group of students who were very enthusiastic. So we decided to take on one more event per week. We were quickly booked up through the fall. We actually had to turn people away, which is a little bit sad.”

Undergraduates become Stressbusters by completing a training session offered by the Center for Wellness at the beginning of each semester. The two-hour sessions give students a history of the program and a rundown of how it works, as well as lessons on how to give a good back rub.

“There’s a very specific protocol,” said Mahon. “We call it a back rub, not a massage, because students don’t go through the level of training that a qualified massage therapist would go through. We instruct them on how to do seated back rubs that focus on the neck, back, shoulders, and arms.”

New Stressbuster deliverers practice on each other under the watchful eye of licensed massage therapist Kara Donohoe. Donohoe said she makes sure that students know a muscle from a bone, and the points at which pleasure becomes pain.

“I teach them to work on back, neck, arms, and hands, while avoiding any bony areas of the body,” Donohoe said. “As a massage therapist, I have extensive training in anatomy, physiology, and pathology. This allows me to help people with injuries and people who suffer from chronic pain and stress.”

The group usually appears at events scheduled by proctors or tutors who email Stressbusters with a request. As coordinator, Cardenas lines up the dates — typically two or three per week — and recruits cohorts to participate. The Stressbusters show up with supplies and use chairs provided by the host. Students who want a back rub take a seat — or sign up if there’s a list — and enjoy their sessions.

“I normally don’t like getting massages because I’m ticklish,” said Megan Prasad ’15, who attended a Stressbusters event at Thayer Hall. “The Stressbusters were willing to adjust to my preferences to make sure that the back rub was enjoyable. I felt sleepy afterwards, and less tense. It was a great way to wind down.”

Donohoe said that Prasad’s relaxation — and the Stressbusters’ success — stem from the power of the human touch.

“It’s about getting that person in the chair to slow down, put away their iPhone, and lose themselves for five minutes,” she said. “It’s really quite amazing what just five minutes can do for your mind and body. Sometimes just placing your hand on someone’s back or shoulder is all a person needs in that moment, and can help them through the day.”

The next Stressbusters training will be in February. Interested students should watch the Community Outreach area of the Center for Wellness website for dates. If you want the Stressbusters to visit your House or dorm, send a request to relax@fas.harvard.edu.