Letter to the Editor: Lockdown illustrates need to better equip students for self-care during, after crises

I teach in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern and also hold instruction on meditation. Last Wednesday afternoon, I was walking through the Evanston campus when the dining staff at Sargent Hall unceremoniously hustled me into the residence hall’s kitchen. Everyone and everything stopped suddenly and completely as the University’s emergency response system sent our phones an alert: There were reports of a man on campus with a gun. We were forced to take shelter, and all at once, the entire campus community took a collective, nervous pause.

The kitchen became an eerie sanctuary as students and staff huddled on the concrete floor amid the steel pots and pans. Then a metal door rolled down and clanged shut behind us, trapping us inside, but safe from any imminent danger. The room was remarkably quiet; students hunched their shoulders together and their bodies curled inward on the ground. This may have been a safe space away from danger, but it was certainly not a comfortable one — neither physically nor psychologically.

With my meditation training, I immediately recognized that the students were in the midst of the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol and adrenaline surged through their young bodies, elevating heart rates, making breathing more shallow and limiting peripheral vision. About two hours later, students were set free when the report turned out to be a hoax. But while the physical threat of a shooter was not real, the stress on students’ bodies and minds unquestionably was.

Things slowly returned to normal. A few hours later in a different setting, I observed students taking a very different type of pause: They were participating in a sound meditation practice offered at Henry Crown Sports Pavilion. As they entered the room, many students expressed gratitude that we had not cancelled this event and gave thanks that it was happening on this particular day.

The contrast between the residence hall kitchen during the supposed ongoing threat and the meditation atmosphere in the Wellness Center could not have been more striking. The kitchen was nervous and unsettling; the Wellness Center was serene. Now students were resting comfortably on mats, nestled in soft blankets, all of them taking an intentional pause. This allowed them to calm their central nervous systems, release the tension in their bodies and find a sense of peace and calm. They surrendered to the waves of sound from the gongs and chimes being played by a professional musician.

During the shooter alert, the University did a great job insuring the physical safety of our students. But being there during the response, I realize in the aftermath it must do much more. We have to teach students the skills they can use to nurture their own well-being. Students should learn how to recognize the physical symptoms that arise when they are operating in a state of fear, and then learn how to initiate their own “pause.” That’s where meditation practice, and the tools it provides, can play an important role.

Students can be taught to modulate their flight-or-fight response in the presence of challenging situations. Each student can calm his or her nervous system, connect with their breathing and respond constructively rather than merely react. By taking this constructive pause, students can think more clearly and discern the best course of action in the face of a threat. They will also be able to help others as they see the situation more clearly and discern where they can be of service.

The students at the sound meditation event were learning those skills. The result was a room filled with young people whose bodies were relaxed, whose hearts and chests were stretched open and whose minds were at rest. Only a few hours earlier, they were filled were fear; now they were filled with peace. Today, our students are learning how to read, analyze, compute and create. They also have to learn how to be at ease.

Cindy Conlon, SESP faculty member