One NCC professor challenged his students to confront and reflect on their daily stress through means of sensory deprivation.
“I think stress, which is increasingly becoming recognized even in mainstream medicine, is the source of an untold number of ailments,” Burak said. “Not just things like anxiety and depression or various other psychological forms of suffering, but all sorts of physical suffering that wreaks havoc on the body. It’s important to find a way of dealing with it.”
Ken Burak is known by many around the campus as a barefoot, ukulele-strumming Philosophy professor with a seemingly impenetrable sense of tranquility. Recently, Burak asked all 100 of his students to experience their own tranquility by participating in flotation therapy at Bethlehem’s Metta Relaxation Company.
“The flotation is a really elaborate, but simple, way to be introduced to just what it’s like to be calm and just how stressed out they normally are,” he said.
“Like when the compressor is on in the building and all of the machines in the building are going full-force, you don’t even notice them. Then, all of a sudden, it goes off and feels so much better. That times a thousand. Where all of the sensory stimulus is gone and there’s just calm in the flotation tank.”
In 1954, an American neurophysiologist named Dr. John C. Lilly worked with his associate Dr. Jay Shirley to develop the first flotation tank. Their experiment was centered around one question – Does the body need external stimuli to continue its conscious state?
Lilly’s work to perfect the design carried into the early ‘70s. For years, flotation tanks were used by private individuals and researchers in university labs. Until years later, in 1983, where flotation therapy picked up interest for its effects on the mind and body.
Metta Relaxation Company features five float rooms containing a thousand pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in 10 inches of water. Natural buoyancy causes the body to float on top of the water.
With each floating tank heated to 93.5 degrees, the body loses the ability to feel air or water, giving a weightless feeling. Music is provided to signal both the beginning and ending of the session. After a quick hit of a light, conveniently located within the tank, the room falls into complete darkness and silence with only the sounds of breathing left.
These 90-minute sessions promote physical stress relief, emotional stress relief, self-awareness and increased concentration.
Stephanie Bealer, owner of Metta Relaxation Company, first heard about flotation therapy from a client during her work with nutrition and reflexology.
“From the very first float, I was hooked. I did massage, reflexology, and all things healthy,” she said, “but I noticed such a profound effect on my mood, outlook, everything.”
After attending a flotation conference in Portland, Oregon, she and her husband bonded their engineering and design backgrounds to create a new type of flotation chamber.
“We designed the open float rooms so it would be appealing to everyone. Truly, that was our motivation,” she said. “What we found after we were open, was that people who were not physically able to float in an enclosed chamber, were able to float here.”
Open float rooms provide an escape to paraplegic, claustrophobic and anxiety-prone individuals. Flotation also works to relive physical pain as well as emotional stress.
“Testing is really stressful and we feel like our whole lives are on the line. If we screw this up, we feel like our whole futures are going to be taken away. Stress is fundamentally a survival mechanism. It’s designed to be there, so that we can get away from a lion that is chasing us,” Burak said.
“We’ve organized our society in such a way that lions aren’t the greatest threat to our survival, not having money is the greatest threat to our survival. Just like your stress response might kick in if somebody knew how to recognize the fresh scat of a lion. Even though there’s no lion, they know a lion is near and their stress response might kick in. Anything that is related to the threat of survival.”
“For us, anything related to money, kicks in our survival instinct because we know that we’ll die without money. So, work becomes really stressful. Without work, you don’t have money. Without money, you don’t have food. Without food, you don’t survive. That’s the lion.”
With the end of the semester around the corner, many blurry-eyed, stressed out students search for their bearings in order to overcome finals.
“And grades – Finals are coming along. You don’t do well on your finals; you don’t get good grades. You don’t get good grades; you don’t get a degree. You don’t get a degree; you don’t get a good job. You don’t get a good job; you don’t get money. You don’t get money; you don’t get food. You don’t get food, you die,” Burak said.
“Everything becomes a lion, 24 hours a day. The stress response is really a brilliant response to a survival situation, but it’s only supposed to last nine or ten minutes. It’s not supposed to be there all the time. We’re not supposed to be bathing in these stress-related chemical cocktails all of the time, but we are.”
Bealer welcomes students to come to Metta Relaxation Co. in the times they need to defeat these lions.
“For finals time, that’s a perfect time to float. Not only is floating great for calming stress and anxiety, but because you don’t have external distractions, you can use it as a learning tool and visualize,” she said. “A lot of students have found it beneficial to focus on the exams because they don’t have anything pulling at their attention.”
On top of flotation and massage, Metta Relaxation Company also features the ancient therapy of reflexology. This no risk therapy is done in a zero-gravity chair through the feet.
“We put you in zero gravity chair, which is therapeutic in itself. Whenever your feet are higher than your heart, it’s called reverse blood flow,” Bealer said. “Then we work on the feet with a percussor and work with our hands using organic coconut oil. It’s calming for the central nervous system, anxiety, and stress.”
Each hand and foot has 7,200 nerve endings that are responsible for handling every organ, system and gland in the body.
“It’s a very holistic therapy in that, through those nerve endings, we are touching on every part of you,” said Bealer. “It’s essentially persuading one end of the body, through an applied pressure, to affect another area. Through the feet, we can help the body biologically correct itself.”
As students battle the elements of jobs, schoolwork and daily demands of society, it’s easy to feel there is not enough time in the day to treat their stress.
“It should be part of our daily routine to do something, whether that’s meditation, yoga, taking some deep breaths, listening to music, or just lie down and look up at the clouds and spend some time not engaged in all of your projects. Everybody thinks they don’t have five minutes, but everybody does and it can make a really big difference,” Burak said.
One way students can utilize this five-minute period is the “4-7-8” breathing exercise.
This breathing technique creates a cumulative and tranquilizing effect on the body.
After keeping your tongue on the ridge of tissue behind the upper teeth, exhale all of your breath through your mouth. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose to a mental count of four with your tongue still in place. Hold your breath and count to seven. Exhale completely, making a whooshing sound, to a count of eight. Do these steps three more times and you have finished the breathing exercise.
“There’s no equipment. There’s nothing to purchase,” Bealer said. “All you need is you, and you can do this any time situationally. The real benefit comes from doing it on a daily basis because it has a cumulative effect.”
The 4-7-8 works best twice a day. Students are suggested to begin practicing it when waking up and going to sleep.
“We’re all born into this fundamentally stressful situation as humans because we’re completely inept to survive on our own when we’re born,” Burak said. “We’re born into a very dangerous situation because we’re completely dependent on other people to take care of us.”
“If you leave a baby just sitting there – Horse? He’ll be fine. Fish? They’ll be fine. Human? They’re screwed. We’re completely dependent, and if our caregivers are gone or ignoring us, we’re screwed. We need attention and it’s linked to survival.”
“When we’re not getting enough attention, we panic. Just like a kid needs awareness and will calm down if you give them some attention, give the sensations that you’re having in your body some attention. Your body will calm down.”
Ken Burak: Solutions to stress
“The future of stress is that it can leads to all sorts of problems. The past of stress and what leads to it, I think that’s the way we design our society. There’s long-term solution, which I think we could realize that this situation is not conducive to health.
When Switzerland proposes that they’re going to have a guaranteed minimal income for everybody in the country, that just means that’s taken off the table.
You don’t have a job? It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. You don’t pass this exam? It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. Your friends don’t like you? It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. The government is going to give you this check.
In the long-term, I believe in solutions like that. Take the stress out of as much of our life as possible. Take survival off the table. We’re all going to be ok.
In the short-term, what to do when you’re living in a society that is so stressful… You know when you’re really freaking out and somebody says take a deep breath? The interesting thing about the breath is that it’s a Venn diagram overlap of an involuntary and voluntary system.
Your heart is going to keep beating and you can’t do things to change how fast your heart is beating. You can’t mandate to your heart, ‘Start to beat faster.’ You can’t decide to digest your food faster. You can’t decide the rate that neurons are going to be firing in your brain. They’re involuntary systems.
Your breathing though, is voluntary. You can decide to slow down your breathing. We have some control over our lives and our stress levels. Out of all of those systems, there is one you have control over and that’s breathing. It’s a powerful one.
If you slow down your breathing, it will gradually calm down all of those other systems. You can literally be sitting in front of a test and it’s blurry. I would recommend what that student do at that point – Long-term? Guaranteed minimal income for everybody, so he doesn’t have to be so stressed out about this test. Short-term and you’re taking the test now? What’s my advice? Breathe. Take long, deep breaths.”