SRU professors win grant to study stress-reduction therapy


therapy dog and students

Animal-assisted therapy is one of three areas that SRU professors have received grant monies from Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education with which to pursue certification. (Photo by Jordyn Naggy, communication and journalism major from Derry.)

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - No one has to convince Slippery Rock University recreational therapy faculty that laughter, animal-assisted therapy and stress-management are good medicine.

That's why the professors sought and have received an $8,355 grant from Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education Faculty Professional Development Council program to pursue certification in animal-assisted therapy, humor therapy and HeartMath. HeartMath provides techniques people can practice daily to reduce stress.

Betsy Kemeny, assistant professor of parks and recreation who teaches recreational therapy, applied for the "Enhancing Faculty Competency in Stress Management Modalities for High Impact Practices" grant.

Professors will infuse what they learn during certification training into classes so that recreational therapy graduates become better health care practitioners.

"Chronic stress can contribute to both physical and mental health issues such as a suppressed immune system, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, cancer, diabetes, depression and anxiety," Kemeny said.

"Along with other health professions, recreational therapy has recently addressed chronic stress through specific evidence-based interventions such as animal-assisted therapy, therapeutic humor, mindfulness meditation, resiliency training and guided imagery."

Kemeny said the professional development would promote an improvement in student competency to deliver stress management modalities to clients, creating high impact practice.

"This timely strategy will also allow the recreational therapy program to continue to offer a curriculum that exceeds the standards and guidelines set forth for accreditation," she said.

Animal-assisted therapy, coordinated by Deborah Hutchins, chair of the parks and recreation department, uses animals to promote human improvement in physical, social, emotional or cognitive functions.

Hutchins brought her dogs, Bella and Sookie, to campus twice this week, to interact with students and help them alleviate stress during final exams week.

Humor therapy promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of situations, according to the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor.

"This intervention may enhance health or be used as a treatment of illness to facilitate healing or coping, whether physical, emotional, cognitive, social or spiritual," said Colleen Cooke, SRU professor of parks and recreation who teaches recreational therapy.

"Humor therapy will be taught - infused into - in the current recreational therapy curriculum, particularly in the 'Leisure Education and Counseling' and 'Recreational Therapy Interventions' courses," she said.

Cooke said the physical benefits of laugher are many. They include increased endurance for pain, improved heart function, enhanced immune system and a decrease in stress-related illness such as hypertension. Emotional benefits include decreased feelings of depression and anxiety, increased alertness and increased self-esteem.

"Therapeutic humor can be used in any service setting where recreational therapy is provided," Cooke said.

Cooke is enrolled in the Humor Academy of the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor and expects to become a certified humor therapist in 2017.

Part of the certification requires an applied project. Cooke said her intent is to work with individuals who have schizophrenia and observe whether their quality of life improves after engaging in humor therapy.

The potential of HeartMath is different from other approaches to stress management, which typically focus on calming down after a stressful event. HeartMath teaches people a technique to "reset" physical reaction to stress as the event occurs.

The HeartMath System is comprised of techniques, tools and technology; and has been developed and validated through rigorous scientific research. The focus is on the heart-brain interaction and emotional physiology, Kemeny said.

Kemeny said she has already received her certification as a HeartMath Coach and is finishing her certification in HeartMath Interventions for healthcare providers.

"These relaxation techniques have multiple uses for integration into student programs at Slippery Rock University," she said.

Kemeny said she plans to use the relaxation techniques to assist seniors in preparation for the National Certification exam in recreational therapy.

"Test-taking anxiety is a common issue when taking a comprehensive certification exam," she said.

Kemeny said she plans to implement the HeartMath techniques into the Storm Harbor Equestrian Center program for veterans and the Accessing Independence in Leisure and Social Skills (TRAILS) program for youth on the autism spectrum.

"The HeartMath solutions have implications for stress reduction and management in many different populations that recreational therapists serve," she said.

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