Holistic health class teaches students creative ways to reduce stress

SF State lecturer Kenn Burrows teaches a class on relaxation and stress reduction (HH205) that is one of the University’s most popular holistic health offerings. And it may become even more popular, given the growing student interest in managing the stress of modern life.

Students continue to face the stressors traditionally associated with college life—such as developing study habits and navigating relationships. Yet they also face new stressors, such as educational and living costs that don't keep up with wages, food and water quality, managing the flood of digital information and social media.

Photo of Holistic Health Lecturer Kenn Burrows.

Holistic Health Lecturer Kenn Burrows teaches relaxation and stress reduction. 

Existential stress is also a factor, according to Burrows. Economic globalization and urbanization trends are making the world more complicated to navigate. “Currently, we have an economy more than a society,” said Burrows. “Growing economic disparity, social fragmentation and ecological decline can leave students feeling socially disconnected and wondering how to find meaningful work and participate in building a more just and sustainable future.”

Burrows’ class offers a way for students to define their values and respond creatively to these stresses. “I’ve learned from my own experience in stressful environments, as a ticket agent at Los Angeles International Airport, a congressional aide and as a corporate consultant. I’ve seen different types of stress,” said Burrows, who directs The Holistic Health Learning Center at SF State’s Institute for Holistic Health Studies. “I grew to appreciate that some people would cope effectively and some would fall apart. Over the years I’ve learned key skills that worked to help people.”

The class has a proactive focus including self-directed learning, strength-affirming thoughts and constructive actions as the foundation for meaningful, stress resilient living. It emphasizes six life-skill development areas for coping effectively with stress: movement, relaxation, communication and social relations, cognition/perceptive, and nutrition and ecological health.

“The class is structured like a buffet, where students get to experience something different each week,” Burrows said. Over the semester, students discover which aspect of stress reduction they want to focus on and join a smaller group within the class to further explore that aspect. Students then write up a comprehensive stress and self-care plan as their final exam.

The diverse set of students, often including veterans who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, vary considerably in how they want to approach stress reduction. Some students come to the class “wanting a quick fix” for stress, Burrows said. “But most people coming in are more humbled by the challenges of our times and want to learn skills that will make a difference.”

People come to the class expecting to learn about self-care, but they soon find that the health of their communities and their environments also play a significant and sometimes forgotten role in their personal stress levels. “It’s important to gain a few key skills to better manage the environmental demands of your life and work. However, gaining a few skills will not keep you healthy in a toxic environment, and you should consider alternatives,” Burrows said.

Burrows recently spoke at the Student Health Center on ways to shift habits that can keep a person reacting rather than responding creatively to stress. Topics included the neurobiological bias toward fear and resistance to novelty, and selected mind-body practices that support mindful engagement and the creative process. Slowing down is an important part of creatively reducing stress, he said. This gives a person a chance to “do less -- yet accomplish more -- by clarifying personal values, letting go of what’s extra and acting on top priorities. This lies at the heart of managing stress and time.”

When people submit to “the busyness of life” and don’t take time to relax, Burrows added, they aren’t giving themselves time to come up with creative solutions to their challenges. “Creative versus reactive living is the key to healthy living.”

-- University Communications