By Maggie Ritchie

UNIVERSITY can be an anxious time for young people faced with the pressures of exams, deadlines, and lack of money.

But strangely enough, they are getting lessons on the flying trapeze in the hope of combating their fears and building resilience and confidence.

Plunging through the air from a great height allows them to experience visceral terror in a safe, controlled environment, and learn that they can survive fear. It’s part of a research project at the University of Glasgow into how ‘good’ stress can improve wellbeing and help people cope with fear and anxiety.

Psychology lecturer Dr Chiara Horlin, who is conducting the study, has taken several groups of students to Aerial Edge at the circus school in Kelvinhall, where they are encouraged to take a leap of faith by her husband, head coach Scott Craig.

“I came across an article on a psychology website about the benefits of going on rollercoasters, and how putting people in a state of ‘eustress’ (good stress) as opposed to distress gives physical and psychological benefits,” Dr Horlin said.

“We have a lot of extremely capable students who are concerned about perfection and become anxious about doing well, and I want to help fortify them. We have tried mindfulness techniques in the past but that doesn’t work for everyone as some people respond better to raising positive stress levels. This way, they can experience stress and anxiety but realise that they can get through it.”

Dr Horlin has recorded physical and psychological measures of wellbeing before and after the flying trapeze exercise.

“Most of them were really scared as even though they knew they were with a safety instructor and wearing harnesses with a safety net below, their instincts were screaming at them not to jump.”

Fourth-year psychology student Laura Greenwood, who interviewed the focus groups said: “Afterwards, a lot of people said they felt calm and physically and energised, and they noted a drop in stress level that lasted over the next few days.

“One student had been scared of taking public transport but she went on a bus the next day. Another had been anxious about delivering his dissertation but he said: ‘If I can do this what else can I do?’

“This kind of controlled risk takes away the fear of failure – there was one girl who fell off the trapeze but she felt good because everyone cheered her. You learn that if you don’t do well, you can get up and try again.”

Russian and Classics student Jessica Woodcock, 22, from Glasgow took to the trapeze again for The Herald. “The first time it was terrifying and I screamed. But I was buzzing for a long time after. I didn’t think that I could do it but now I know I can do just about anything I set my mind to.”

Psychology student Cameron Macalister, 22, from Glasgow, also braved the flying trapeze again, despite having a fear of heights.

“I was so scared and I thought I was going to die. But after I had this kind of burning feeling, I was so energised. At athletics training I was really fired up and motivated. Doing this has made me realise it’s fine to be nervous and that I can do things I’m scared of – it’s good to feel the fear and do it anyway.”

Cameron braved the trapeze twice more for The Herald. “I was still terrified looking down, but when I let go and I’m in the air the fear stops and I feel exhilarated with the wind in my hair.

“It teaches you to have faith in yourself, to listen to the internal voice that tells you that you’re going to be fine, that you can do it.”

Jessica added: “If anyone had told me that I would be able to tackle the flying trapeze I’d have thought they were crazy.

“Now when I have a presentation to deliver, I think: ‘This is easier than jumping and swinging on the trapeze’. Doing this has helped me let the pressure to be perfect and the fear of failure go.”

Cameron added: “Now I have evidence that I’m brave and confident and can do scary stuff. My next ambition is to try a rollercoaster, even though I’m so scared of heights I wouldn’t go into a lift until recently. I still don’t like heights but now I accept the fear and can get through it.”

Dr Horlin will share her work with the University, student societies, and with the Student Representative Council. Along with Aerial Edge, she will present her findings at the Glasgow Science Fair in June.