Breaking down stress: Student volunteers on track to set free-backrub record this semester

Stressbusters are part of the Stress-Free Zone 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Olin Library
By Diane Toroian Keaggy


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Whitney curtis/WUSTL Photos

Washington University in St. Louis sophomore Delia Chassaing (left), a member of Stressbusters, gives a free backrub massage to freshman Amanda Gallop at Ursa's Fireside.

This is the first article in a series about stress. Next up: Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition, suggests 10 foods to fight stress. To read other parts of the series, visit here.

In the weeks leading up to finals, Washington University in St. Louis sophomore Delia Chassaing and other volunteers will give dozens of free backrubs to tired classmates. The extra time burden might stress out some students, but not Chassaing. It’s not for nothing that she is a “Stressbuster.”

3 questions with Stressbuster Delia Chassaing

Do all of your friends ask you for free backrubs?

Once people figured out on my floor that I was a Stressbuster, all of the guys on the track team would say, “Delia, please give me a massage.” On my own time, I’ve definitely given a lot of backrubs.

Do you get tired giving massages?

Your hands do get a workout. But I’ve found that when you really get in to it, you can leave everything behind and really focus on the work.

What helps you relieve stress?

I like dancing a lot, so ballet is a big stress reliever for me. I also really like rollerblading.

“I’m a Stressbuster for selfish reasons. It busts my stress, too,” Chassaing said. “I unwind when I give backrubs. When you really get into it, you leave everything behind and really focus on the work. It helps me stay in the present.”

Sponsored by the Habif Health and Wellness Center, Stressbuster volunteers have been providing free backrubs to students, faculty and staff since 2009. The next Stressbusters event — its 35th of the semester — will be the Stress-Free Zone, from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Olin Library. Participants will get backrubs, stress-busting tips and a care package loaded with goodies such as herbal tea, dark chocolate and sleeping masks.

Melissa Ruwitch, chief of Health Promotion Services at the Habif Health and Wellness Center, expects Stressbusters’ 70 members will rub more than 1,165 backs this semester, a new record.

“The program is clearly meeting a need,” Ruwitch said. “It’s grown every semester in terms of number of volunteers and number of backrubs given. Stessbusters are really helping students rediscover relaxation.”

Stress-Free Zone
When: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 Where: Olin Library
More info:
Student Health Services
Stressbuster volunteers are not professionals, but they do receive training in Swedish backrub techniques from a licensed massage therapist. Chassaing starts most backrubs by scanning the neck, shoulder, back and arms for tension. She then asks how much pressure the recipient wants.

“Some people say they are ticklish and don't want much; other people say, ‘Put your full body into it,’” said Chassaing, who joined Stressbusters as a freshman. “Either way, I believe every person comes away with something. Just being in that chair for five minutes and being present can make a difference.”

Research proves that massage reduces anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate and depression, Ruwitch said.

“It is one of many tools to fight stress,” Ruwitch said. “Sometimes, students are not even aware of how much tension they carry in their bodies. Over time, all of that stress can have an impact on our health.”

Stressbusters improve their technique by giving each other backrubs and feedback. Chassaing has learned a lot from her peers and now is a favorite among regulars at Stressbuster events, Ruwitch said. Chassaing, who is majoring in economics in Arts & Sciences, also serves as a residential peer health educator.

“People appreciate her backrubs,” Ruwitch said. “Some have requested her to be their Stressbuster, which means they may have to wait longer in line at the event, but it is worth it to them.”

To join Stressbusters, apply online. Training starts Feb. 1.

Diane Toroian Keaggy
Director, Campus Life News
314-935-7298 (o); 314-974-4238 (c)