Fifteen years of backrubs: Stressbusters creator Jordan Friedman visits campus

| Senior Editor

Over a dozen Washington University undergraduate and graduate students attended training to become Stressbusters volunteers Saturday, Sept. 28. Stressbusters are mental health ambassadors for the Habif Health and Wellness Center, best known for providing free five-minute backrubs at multiple on-campus events and in Olin Library during finals season each semester.


Along with licensed massage therapist John Moore, this year’s training was facilitated by Jordan Friedman who created the Stressbusters program as one arm of The Stress Coach, his series of stress relief seminars, workshops and projects.


Friedman has helped found Stressbusters programs in multiple universities in the United States and one in Colombia, and is based in New York City (He notes on his website, “I moved to New York City because I wanted to live and work in a calm and quiet place”). Consequently, his visit was a special occasion, and Student Life took the opportunity to learn how Stressbusters came to Wash. U. and what the effect of the program has been.


From stressed student to stressed-student supporter


Friedman traces the history of The Stress Coach back to his own undergraduate experience at the University of Maryland.


“I was a really stressed college student,” Friedman said, recalling developing health issues that his doctor said were stress-induced. He was urged to enroll in a stress management class offered on his campus. “And reluctantly I enrolled, and from the first day…I saw the light,” he said half-jokingly. “And that was that stress didn’t have to be a non-stop thing, that one could live and enjoy life without being stressed all the time. I learned stress management techniques that were fast-acting and worked for issues I was dealing with, and I was sold.”


Friedman continued studying stress and stress management education, eventually teaching that first class he had taken at the University of Maryland. He later took a position as director of the health education program at Columbia University, where Stressbusters was born.


When his staff solicited feedback and ideas from students at Columbia, one request kept coming up.


“Back then, students were asking for free-full body massages on demand, and we couldn’t do that,” he said. “So I had the idea: what if we taught students how to provide simple, five-minute backrubs at campus events all year long, with the goal of making it convenient for students who are running from class to class or work, or commuter students…We tried it, and it was a huge success from the very first event, and it’s just grown from there.”


The benefits of busting stress


When asked what he hopes Stressbustees (the people getting the backrubs) and volunteers gain from the program, Friedman named two goals. The first is, of course, a break from stress.


“It’s really important to break that chain,” Friedman said. “Even ten minutes can make a huge difference, can make a difference psychologically, physically, as opposed to unending stress all day long.”


The second is to introduce the idea of stress reduction to students who may otherwise never know these resources are available.


“The Stressbusters events are magnets,” Friedman said. “And it’s a great opportunity to say, ‘Hey, if you like this, you also might like this,’” and connect them to other classes, support groups, and services.


Beyond these missions, Friedman is motivated by the community that Stressbusters fosters.


“We’ve seen over the years that Stressbusters has become a safe home where students know they can go and people are going to be really nice to them, help them feel good and smile. And this can be especially true for new students, who maybe don’t have a lot of friends yet and aren’t connected into student life,” he said.


This feeling of home holds true for the volunteers as well.


“When we first started the program, we were very focused on the Stressbustees,” Friedman said. “It’s very visual, you’re getting a backrub, so that’s going to make you feel good and, yes, that’s the goal of the program. And we were paying less attention to how it would impact the volunteers, but we found both from them telling us and through doing evaluations that the volunteers find the Stressbusters events a great chance to get away from schoolwork, to get away from other stress that they’re dealing with. It’s meditative for some of them; for 45 minutes to an hour…they’re getting to focus on one thing. And, of course, they’re repeatedly being thanked…and that feels good. Plus the Stressbusters form friendships.”


Student Life also spoke with Friedman about resources for faculty, as Stressbusters does not limit itself to serving students. While students may see the faculty as the source of a lot of their stress, faculty and staff can also feel overwhelmed.


“Where campus stress is concerned, you’re only addressing half of the challenge if you’re focusing on students,” Friedman said. He expressed his belief in a snowball effect for stress reduction between both groups.


Staying stress-free after the backrub


One challenge with programs like Stressbusters is balancing fixing immediate feelings of stress with tackling its root causes. Friedman iterated that receiving a backrub is “an on-ramp to long-term wellness.”


“Someone could come to a Stressbusters event; they get a backrub for five minutes, it feels great and their stress is reduced—we have a lot of data that show that,” Friedman said. “Also at the event, they learn about walk-in hours at counseling which they didn’t know about before. Or, even more basically, and I love this statistic, they learn where the counseling center is.”


“I also think it’s hard to solve problems and think clearly when you’re in the middle of a hurricane,” he continued. “So Stressbusters events are sometimes the eye of the storm, where you have a little bit of time to process what’s going on, think about how to proceed and, at the same time, learn about some resources that will help you do that.”


Ultimately, Stressbusters provides a chance to step away from the stresses of the day, both for Stressbustees and volunteers. Depending on the student and the day, the five minutes spent with a Stressbuster can have a small or dramatic impact.


“It also keeps me going that students just get a break for a few minutes, and maybe it helps them do better on an exam that they’re about to take, or to have a difficult conversation with a friend or to sleep better that night,” Friedman said.


From 2009-2019, Stressbusters volunteers at Wash. U. have given 12,728 backrubs to students, staff and faculty. New and returning volunteers aim to continue Friedman’s mission and increase that number this year.


Stressbusters’ presence at Wash. U. comes hand in hand with free student subscriptions to the Stressbusters Wellness app, which contains relaxing soundtracks, guided meditations and information about Stressbusters events and other mental health resources at Wash. U. Stressbusters events and trainings are also available on WUGO.

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