Dec. 5, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 3

Ready to Relax

Peaceful spaces help students de-stress for success

With wellness and relaxation in mind, Zen Den II, located in BMU 301, features coloring art, massage chairs, hammocks, and bean bag chairs.

“Nap here, learn in the classroom.”

This, Brooke McCall joked, is the unofficial tagline of the new Zen Den II in the Bell Memorial Union (BMU). The space opened in September for use by students, faculty, and staff, after months of work by Wildcat Recreation Center (WREC) staff and support from the Associated Students. The restful relaxation area, operated by the WREC, boasts four massage chairs, three hammocks, and a strong focus on mental health and wellness.

Stepping into BMU 301 feels like sighing in relief, said McCall, program supervisor for the WREC. Dimly lit by twinkle lights, the room is filled with calming waterfall sounds from a fountain along one wall. The main area has a living room vibe with a sofa, chairs, and coffee table, and a half-dozen bean bag chairs that can be positioned wherever desired. The side and back walls of the room have curtained-off areas for the hammocks and massage chairs so guests can relax in private.

That ambience is intentional. The new space is an extension modeled after the Zen Den relaxation room in Student Services Center, which opened a year ago to help counselors triage patients in distress but not necessarily in crisis.

“We hoped that students who were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and panic could access this low-stimulation environment without an appointment and self-soothe,” said Juni Banerjee-Stevens, associate director of the Counseling and Wellness.

“It is hugely helpful to have something to offer students when we don't have a counselor available. Students also access the Zen Den on their own … [so] they are capitalizing on their own resilience and learning to manage anxiety without professional help. This, truly, is what we want to promote.”

According Banerjee-Stevens, sleep deprivation is a huge issue on college campuses, and sleep and relaxation are often the best tools for dealing with anxiety and depression, the first and second presenting concerns of students who access counseling centers, respectively.

“When I see the students go in there, it occurs to me how few spaces they must have on campus where they can really escape,” she said. “If you are introverted or highly sensitive to stimulation, living in the residence halls can get overwhelming. We really wanted to offer an antidote to those environments.”

Samantha “Sammi” Shea unwinds and reads a book in one of the Zen Den II’s bean bag chairs.

Samantha “Sammi” Shea unwinds and reads a book in one of the Zen Den II’s bean bag chairs.

WREC staff also recognized the serious consequences of students who are too tired, stressed, or anxious to succeed in the classroom, and knowing that not everyone finds calm through exercise, they set about creating the additional relaxation space of Zen Den II.

“Wellness is becoming a much bigger piece of university recreation nationwide,” said Curtis Sicheneder, WREC director.

He wants students to know it's okay to disengage sometimes and that Zen Den II is designed for them, “You don't have to be perfect 24/7. This place exists for you. It's okay to shut it down and put it in neutral. We care about your well-being. We care about your success while you're here.”

“I think that's something, in a general sense, Chico State is really good at—all of campus,” he said. “This is just an extension of that. It's part of our culture.”

Finding a space to build off of the success of the original Zen Den proved to be a bit tricky.

“We knew what we wanted to do was quiet in nature, and we knew we didn't have a place for that in the WREC,” Sicheneder said.

The WREC worked closely with Andrew Roberts, vice president of facilities and services for the Associated Students, and the BMU space committee to lock in the location. Noting that the building has numerous meeting rooms and study spaces already, the committee felt it was an opportunity to try something new.

With the space secured, WREC staff including McCall, Nancy Mantle, and Teresa Clements worked quickly to design and outfit the room, from the paint on the walls to the furniture in place—including the “tough job” of testing out massage chairs and researching the best ways to nap.

“CSU, Northridge has these fancy napping pods, but they're $8,000 a piece, so we decided that hammocks were better suited for our budget,” Mantle said.

Ultimately, it seems the goal of creating a well-used calming space has succeeded. Students gather outside the door before it opens at 11 a.m., quietly filtering in and finding a place to sit. Some relax, eyes closed in a massage chair, while others scroll through their phones from a hammock or bean bag chair.

“People come in here and sleep all of the time,” said Kelsey Tikkanen, a student program assistant for the WREC in charge of staffing the Zen Den II. “A lot of people say they don't have a safe, relaxing place to come and meditate, so that's been good feedback.”

Students take advantage of the area’s relaxing atmosphere for a stress-free study session.

Students take advantage of the area’s relaxing atmosphere for a stress-free study session.

The front desk also has a comment box where the input has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Thank you, just thank you,” wrote one student. “I’m so glad this place exists! It’s a great resource with a wonderful ambience.”

The hope for Zen Den II is not just to provide a place to rest, but also a time and space to recharge and refocus so students and employees can succeed in their study and work.

“I've talked to students who come to the Zen Den to do some relaxation exercises before an exam. Others come between classes to ‘detox,’” said Banerjee-Stevens. “I think of how many times a day I close my door for even a few minutes so I can focus on an email or just close my eyes and zone out so I can get back on task. Students don't always have this luxury; I hope the Zen Den gives them that safe space, even for a few minutes.

Sicheneder echoed that sentiment.

“Hopefully there is a trickle-down to academic success and retention. Not to make this too grandiose—we’re not going to solve the world’s problems with a resting space—but if everyone is doing their part to chip away at [stress, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep] we can make a difference,” he said.

The Zen Den II in BMU 301 is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Students, faculty, and staff are welcome to stop by and sign in for 20 minutes of hammock or massage chair time, or make use of the quiet seating area for rest or study. The original Zen Den in SSC 430 is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Working on the same premise that in order to be successful, students need to take a break sometimes, the WREC is also hosting its semesterly De-Stress Fest prior to final exams. The weeklong event December 5–9 features therapy dogs, acupuncturists, massage therapists, relaxation activities, and more. Find the full schedule online.

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