College Excel’s Mindfulness and Climbing curriculum teaches students how to manage the automatic brain responses responsible for heightening anxiety. As they master these skills students learn they can do more than survive when anxiety sets in – they can thrive.
How do you help college students manage the high level of anxiety associated with the constant pressures of pursuing a degree? One of College Excel’s most powerful tools for teaching anxiety reduction and emotional regulation is our Mindfulness and Climbing curriculum. Two of our coaches, who are both rock climbers and mindfulness practitioners, offer this unique curriculum for our students.
How does rock climbing help students manage their anxiety?
During this class students are coached through a rock climbing activity to practice mindfulness, breath work and executive function skills as they tackle difficult decisions during a high stress situation. Students focus on how to manage their brain’s responses to fear by aligning their mind and body to accomplish their climbing route.
The Power of Engaging the Executive Functions
The class begins with preparing students for their climb. Each participant is taught how to use their executive functions to assess the risk-reward benefit by creating a route up the wall that has the lowest possible risk and the highest possible return. This engages the prefrontal cortex which is critical in situations where fear may be present. If the fear response is hijacked by the amygdala (emotional response) it disables the prefrontal cortex and activates the fight-or-flight response causing an increase in anxiety. This disrupts the executive functions making it near impossible to think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses.
The Body-Mind Connection
During the preparation stage students increase their body awareness through mindfulness and visualization exercises. Students first learn to identify hidden or unconscious stress in their body and apply techniques to calm any anxiety that is present. Next, they envision themselves climbing the wall successfully which aligns the brain with the body.
Breath Work and Mindfulness On the Wall
Students begin their climb by making calculated moves as they progress up the rock wall. During this process momentary stress can cause their body to tense resulting in shallower breathes. Shallow breathing lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress. In these moments students are coached to practice mindfulness by staying present and pausing to take deeper, more controlled breaths. This technique triggers the brain to release endorphins, which are chemicals that have a natural calming effect. This in return helps restore access to the executive functions needed to solve the problem that initially caused the stress.
The Dopamine Connection and Small Successes
Chunking down each climbing move creates opportunities for success no matter how far up the wall a student gets. When a student accomplishes a move on the wall it is celebrated by their coach and peers. This stimulates the brains reward system and with each new victory the neurotransmitter dopamine is released which plays a role in our ability to strive, focus and maintain interest in an activity. Better yet, higher dopamine levels boost positive emotions and decrease anxiety which is ideal for effectively managing stress responses.
The Growth Mindset and Embracing Failure
Coaching students to champion the growth mindset allows failures on the wall to be embraced and considered an opportunity for more learning. Failures are considered just as important as successes due to their ability to provide important feedback, deepen self-knowledge and build resiliency. As students review their climb and make adjustments for their next attempt their executive functions reengage enabling them to step out of any leftover anxiety and move forward with a plan.
Applying these Tools to Manage Academic Pressures
After the climb has been completed, students debrief their experience and discuss how the tools they used to accomplish their climb can be applied to their academic pursuits and college experience. After the class is completed our coaches work with students throughout their College Excel experience to implement what they have learned as they continue to practice the tools and reduce their anxiety in and out of the classroom. A few of these tools include mindfulness techniques for staying present during class, chunking assignments down in order to increase dopamine, breath work to reduce anxiety during tests and engaging the prefrontal cortex and executive functions in order to effectively practice time management, organization, planning and self-monitoring skills which are vital for college success.
The Circuit Bouldering Gym. The Circuit is a beautiful new space here in town where two of our coaches, who are both rock climbers and mindfulness practitioners, are offering a unique curriculum for our students this term. This activity is a required component for first term students and all other students are able to opt-in. There’s a lot of excitement around this activity and we look forward to creating another space where students can be safely challenged in a supportive, fun environment.