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The DeStress Express

Creating a Mindset of Stress Management on Campus

By Mary Sierra, Suffolk County Community College-Ammerman (NY),
and Meredith E. Schuster-Gansrow, Massage On The Go USA (NY)

Finding someone who isn’t stressed is like winning the lotto—hopeful, but rare! Stress has become the new, nasty five-letter word that none of us can escape, or maybe we just don’t know how. More and more students are feeling the pressure to perform academically as well as socially on college campuses across the nation.

Getting into a college or getting hired by an employer is no longer based only on GPA. Employers and admissions officers seek well-rounded student leaders who can multitask and handle myriad responsibilities. In today’s competitive job market and campus communities, students of all walks of life must work harder and take on more complex and rigorous commitments to separate themselves from the crowd.

At times, these added activities taken on by students in their academic and social lives can be as time consuming and stressful as any other major factors in life. As is so often the case, with the presence of new tasks and new stress, something usually falls by the wayside, and that something is usually wellness.

How Stress Affects Students

Being stressed is a norm in our society and for our students, the pressure is becoming overwhelming. Students routinely experience stressors caused by family members, friends, personal life, classes, jobs, the clubs or organizations they belong to and even their own expectations. As student affairs professionals, specifically in the area of student activities, we should be looking into how we can start to address the area of stress management on our campuses.

According to Richard Kadison, MD, Chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard and co-author of College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It, “…institutions must choose between trying to ignore or minimize the serious emotional challenges students face in college versus seeing emotional development as part of intellectual, developmental, and spiritual growth that is integral to the college experience. Most have chosen wisely.” (Kadison & Foy DiGeronimo, 3).

Each semester since 2000, the American College Health Association has conducted a National College Health Assessment. During the past five years, 261,035 students were surveyed at 424 schools. Out of the top 10 impediments to academic performance, stress ranked number one as the largest obstacle to a student’s individual academic excellence—semester after semester. Once we recognize that stress is real, we can begin to manage it. The first step needs to be a willingness to include wellness as a top priority.

Managing Stress on Campus

Managing stress on a college campus is not an easy task, but it is also a topic that can no longer be ignored. Our students live in an age that is very high-tech and fastpaced. They are so constantly plugged into their cell phones, iPods and gaming systems that we rarely see them having conversations with their fellow students on campus. They are constantly rushing through life trying to multi-task a week’s worth of responsibilities into a few hours.

At Suffolk County Community College-Ammerman (NY), we realized we needed to give our students an avenue to allow them to “unplug” and connect to their minds and bodies, even if only for a few minutes at a time. In the past, our clubs have sponsored programs through the Office of Campus Activities to address the issue of stress reduction and stress management for the campus community.

They have provided free massage programs for several semesters that included an all-day program during finals week, which offered free five-minute massages to the student population. More often than not, we would also include other fun novelty items. This program was one of our best-attended and most popular events. But the participating students always left echoing one statement: “When are you bringing this program back to campus?!”

This constant feedback led to discussions between our Office of Campus Activities and students on how to purposefully create a program based on the concept of stress management, as well as incorporating an environment conducive to allowing students to feel a part of the community. We decided to explore this idea with Massage On The Go USA.

It was important for us to work with a company to which we could communicate our goals, ideas and motivations. It just so happened that at the same time, Massage On The Go USA had been exploring the idea of providing fun activities that promote health and well being on campus throughout the entire semester.

At the start of this collaboration, we identified three major objectives. The first was to make the activity meaningful. We wanted to keep the concept of stress management and wellness as our top priority. The second objective was to address the need for a sense of community. How can we get students to not only have fun but also feel a connection to the program, a connection to the space and, just as important, a connection to each other?

The third objective was to create a new paradigm where taking care of oneself is a value. Unfortunately, many people feel important being busy and stressed, no matter the cost to their well being. Relaxation, reflection and a strong work ethic are all important components to a rewarding life.

You may ask, why focus so much on creating a program around a five-minute massage? Massage has many physical as well as emotional benefits. You may be surprised at what five minutes can accomplish. From a physical standpoint, massage helps improve circulation, release tension in stressed muscles, helps with homeostasis and the lymphatic system, which means improving the immune system. It also releases endorphins, chemicals created by the body that produce a natural “high,” just like exercise does.

From an emotional standpoint, massage connotes a sense of luxury. When people experience a massage or get their nails done, for example, there is a feeling of deserving a higher standard of living and quality of life. Self-esteem, no matter whether it is high or low, is never a simple matter. Therefore, such an experience can be part of what translates into having higher self-esteem and a sense of importance.

With all that in mind, and using the already successful five-minute massage event incorporating our new concepts on stress management, we created the DeStress Express.

Three Main Objectives of the DeStress Express:
  • To make the programming meaningful, with the concept of stress management and wellness at the forefront
  • To address the need for a sense of community
  • To create a new paradigm in which taking care of oneself is associated with value and importance
The DeStress Express

It was important to find an open environment that was visible to our students. We chose the lobby in our Student Center because it is a very open area with a two-story, skylighted ceiling. The lobby, fortunately, does not have much furniture, so we were able to create a spa-like setting with comfortable chairs, café tables and coffee tables. Some items we already had on campus and were able to use. We had to purchase other materials in order to achieve a relaxing setting.

The next important step was the actual scheduling of the event. We felt it was important to offer the DeStress Express at the same time on the same day of every month so students would anticipate finding the program in that space. Students would begin to see the program on a consistent basis and therefore, we hoped, would be more likely to participate in it.

We loved the consistency of the ongoing event. It was something predictable that students could look forward to in a world that seems to be ever-changing. Yet, we still wanted to keep some things spontaneous to appeal to people who need variety to keep things interesting. Each month, Massage On The Go USA either provided or suggested an activity that complemented the massages and reinforced the value of stress management, as well as promoted a sense of community since most of the students participating in the event had never met before.

Because we are a commuter school, it was important for us to reach our daytime and nighttime students. The program was scheduled to start in the late afternoon and run until early evening, covering both populations. The length of time the event required of participants was also taken into consideration, since most of our students are rushing on and off campus.

DeStress Express Results & Findings
  • Students linger after their massages to relax and socialize
  • They reconnect to themselves and each other
  • They return between classes
  • They recruit fellow students to participate
  • They begin to help family members and loved ones relax at home
Results & Findings

Massage On The Go USA created a survey each participant takes prior to receiving a massage, as well as upon its completion. This helps gauge whether the participants perceive their stress level has been lessened after their massage. To date, we have given 237 massages over a span of three months. Our results indicate 82% of the students massaged completed our surveys. Of those, 96% expressed lower levels of stress afterwards.

What we are starting to find is that students usually stay long after their five-minute massage is over. Whether they have moved over to the foot massagers, to our café tables to play cards or board games, or have lingered just to remain in the relaxed atmosphere, they are connecting to themselves and to those around them. We try to purposely facilitate the lines of communication by asking the students who are lingering some open-ended questions.

We have also found that engaging them in a conversation within this area makes their connection that much deeper to the program, and we find them returning the next month or finding us to ask when the next program is occurring.

The students participating in the program are recruiting their friends, too. Whether by calling them from their cell phones or running across campus to find them, they are bringing more people into this relaxed space. While they are in the area, they usually are “unplugged” and engaged in conversations, games and activities happening around them. They seem to feel very comfortable being able to come and go from this space as they choose. We may see the same student at three different times because they came back between classes just to “hang out” with us.

Anonymous Survey Comments from SCCC Students

Here’s what some of our student participants have had to say about the DeStress Express:

  • This really made my day! Thank you.
  • I feel like I have much more energy and [am] refreshed. It was awesome that it was free, too! Best massage ever! Thank you!!!
  • You can tell in five seconds whether you’re getting a good massage and you’re the best!
  • This experience was great. I got out of the chair and felt completely relaxed.
  • Since the DeStress Express was implemented, an interesting phenomenon has occurred. We have begun to hear students discussing how they have been trying to massage their family members or loved ones at home to help them relieve their stress, as well. Due to this feedback, we will soon be running workshops to teach students the basic techniques of administering a massage to another person, since it is important for them to have the right information, tools and techniques.
Where Do We Go From Here?

What we believe this program has done is set a foundation for learning both what can be done to relieve stress in a positive way and how to create the sense of community that so many of our students, in our opinion, are craving. Stress is everywhere, positive and negative, but how we learn to react to it and use it to motivate, inspire and better ourselves is the key.

The discussion between our campus and Massage On The Go USA continues as we further consider stress and new, innovative approaches to relieving it. We are looking into how people create stress in their lives, intentionally and unintentionally, and how to purposefully address this issue to make our students understand their minds, bodies and souls as more complete individuals.

References

Kadison, R., & Foy DiGeranimo, T. College of the overwhelmed: the campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. California: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
American College Health Association. (2005). National College Health Assessment [Online].

About the Authors

Mary SierraMary Sierra is a counselor in the Office of Campus Activities at Suffolk County Community College-Ammerman (NY), where for the past four years she has advised the Campus Activities Board and been involved in programming major events on campus. Previously, she was an academic advisor at Stony Brook University (NY) and was employed at Nassau Community College (NY). She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Association of College Unions International. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a master’s degree in social work from Stony Brook University.

Meredith E. Schuster-GansrowMeredith E. Schuster-Gansrow is president of Massage On The Go USA (NY). She is an associate member of NACA and has been providing massage on college campuses since 1996. She is also a member of the American Business Association and the International Massage Association. She has volunteered for Girls Going Places, the Coalition Against Child Abuse and Neglect and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, to name a few. Outside of her business and philanthropic activities, she spends her time with her husband raising and playing with their children. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the School of Visual Arts (NY) and became a licensed massage therapist after studying at Finger Lakes School of Massage (NY).