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Inner’ peace a goal in Saint Liam

Kaitlynn Riely and Jenn Metz | Friday, October 3, 2008

Running the News section of a daily paper, even a student one, is a stressful job, so when Dr. Wendy Settle of the University Counseling Center sent an e-mail inviting us to use the Inner Resources Room, we accepted, gladly.

We arrived at St. Liam Hall on Thursday afternoon, 12 hours after one of us had spent nine hours helping to put out Thursday’s paper, and four hours before one of us would spend another nine hours helping to put out Friday’s paper.

We needed to de-stress. We’d tried other methods of relaxation. Drinking a glass of wine before bed, exercising, watching “West Wing” episodes. We were considering taking up smoking (maybe that was just one of us). But those approaches don’t work when Libertarian Presidential Candidate Bob Barr is on his way to campus, the Board of Trustees are in town and you have to choose whether to write a paper for class or cover a story.

We met Dr. Settle on the third floor of St. Liam Hall, and told her we wanted to learn about what the resources room offered, but we also wanted to experience it.

It was our first time meeting Dr. Settle, a staff psychologist for the University Counseling Center. She showed us around the Center, then led us into the Inner Resources Room.

Room 305 is a small, square room, with soft lighting and softer sounds. The light strains of the “Quiet Joy” CD accompanied the sounds of water falling from the fountain suspended on the wall.

The room includes a desk with a computer and a large lamp, a television, deep red draperies and, most prominently, a large massage chair.

“That’s usually what attracts people to use the room,” Dr. Settle said.

Jenn claimed the massage chair and turned the control to the “kneading” setting. Dr. Settle first showed us the bright light therapy lamp. Light therapy, she said, can be an effective treatment for people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

People may experience SAD during the winter months, due to the decline in the amount of light coming through the eyes, Dr. Settle said. She compared it to a bear wanting to hibernate. People who have SAD, which usually happens between October and February, may experience fatigue, they may crave carbohydrates and chocolates and could be gaining weight.

Studies have found that light therapy is helpful for most people with seasonal depression, Dr. Settle said.

We sat in front of the Counseling Center’s light box, and she turned it on. Ten thousand lux of light radiated from the rectangular panel. The therapy works best if a person sits in front of the lamp for 30 minutes to an hour each day for a couple of weeks, Dr. Settle said. A person who believes they have SAD should know within four days to two weeks whether the light therapy is helping.

We weren’t feeling sad, but we were tired, and we can see how the bright light could make living beneath the perma-cloud of South Bend more bearable.

But for everyone who thinks they’ve found a way to keep, or regain, their summer tans for free, put your swim trunks and tanning goggles away – the light box will not give your pale skin a healthy-looking tinge.

Next, Dr. Settle showed us a black box in the corner of the room – the negative ion generator. Dr. Settle was knowledgeable about the effect of positive and negative ions on human biochemistry. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just say that negative ions can make you feel good since, in the bloodstream, they speed up the delivery of oxygen to cells and tissues. The negative ion generator, which emits 200 trillion negative ions per cubic centimeter per second, can help people breathe easier and so relieve various types of depression.

The three of us breathed in the air in which, we assumed, trillions of negative ions circled around us. Then Dr. Settle said something neither of us expected to ever hear in an interview:

“I am going to tether you to the negative ion generator.”

She did just that, linking Jenn to the machine, so the negative ions would stick to her more.

Even if students are not depressed, Dr. Settle said, the negative ion generator could help students relax and improve their moods if they use it on a regular basis for 30 minutes to an hour at a time. We’re probably going back.

Dr. Settle demonstrated a respiration device that teaches you how to slow down your breathing and relax. Kaitlynn placed headphones over her ears, and as soft music played, she breathed in and out, following the directions of the graphic on the machine on her lap. But it’s hard to concentrate on breathing in a rhythm and interviewing someone at the same time, so the little man showing her how to breathe gave up on her and disappeared from the screen.

After teaching Kaitlynn to breath rhythmically failed, we logged into the computer and used some of the several biofeedback programs the Counseling Center has uploaded, like “Wisdom Quest” and “Wild Divine: The Journey.”

Dr. Settle got Jenn started on a game that guided her into a temple to meet her “special friend.” For her first mission, her fingers were attached to the computer through a sensor, and her heart rate and breathing rate guided balloons on the screen. Having the balloons go up was a sign of stress or nervousness. If the balloons went down, it meant she was relaxed.

Jenn’s first balloon went to the top of the screen and popped. But she got her next balloon to fall.

Somewhere amidst the low lights, the soft music, the comforting voice of Dr. Settle and the “kneading” and “calf and foot” settings of the massage chair, we decided – with a combined six plus years of Observer employment – this is the best assignment we have ever been on.

The Inner Resources Room, a joint gift from the senior class of 2004 and donor William K. Warren, Sr. is free for Notre Dame students, faculty and staff and open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students can stop by the Counseling Center and sign up for half an hour to hour-long slots.

Dr. Settle teaches a mindfulness and relaxation class on Wednesdays from 4 p.m to 5 p.m. at Rolfs. The course costs $12 and will be held the next two Wednesdays. Students can sign up through the RecSports Web site.

When we left the Inner Resources Room, we felt calm, relaxed, at one with St. Liam. But descending down the stairs, we realized that, between the two of us, we had missed five calls. We had deadlines to hit, homework to do and people to e-mail.

But for a wonderful 75 minutes, Dr. Settle had settled our nerves and slowed down our heart rates.

We’ll be signing up for return sessions in the Inner Resources Room. And maybe asking The Observer to provide a negative ion generator for the office.