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The school year is coming to an end, and that usually means exams, projects, and papers. Feeling under pressure? For most of us, running away screaming from our responsibilities is not an option, but we can make a conscious decision to manage our stress. Quick, simple actions can have valuable benefits. Aim to incorporate at least one of these into your day—every day. Try out the options to find what works for you.
CLICK “Learn more” on each step below to learn more
1. Spend time outdoors
Combine exercise with time outdoors, and what do you get? “Green exercise.” Practice yoga in your backyard or jog around the park and reap double rewards—and potentially double stress reduction.
EvidenceExercising in natural environments is associated with lower blood pressure, increased self-esteem, and improved mood, according to a 2005 study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.
Expert view“Being outside can serve as a distraction and pleasant escape from the stresses of life.”
—Dr. Sofia Anagnos, Jackson Clinics, Fairfax, Virginia
Student story“Exercising in between a lot of homework helps me relieve stress.”
—Gabriela, student, Boston, Massachusetts
ConsiderationsDress for the elements. Don’t forget sunscreen, bug spray, and a water bottle.
2. Massage the stress away
Back rubs and shoulder massages can help reduce our stress. Here’s how to try it out without spending your savings at the spa.
ProgramSome massage schools offer discount massages with students who are in training. Don’t worry—the session will likely be supervised by an expert.
Improvise“Gently rolling your feet on a small hard ball or frozen water bottle can help relax tense muscles and soothe those sore feet.”
—Dr. Sofia Anagnos, Jackson Clinics, Fairfax, Virginia
Other toolsUse a tennis or lacrosse ball, or a foam roller, to roll over tight muscles.
+ Here’s a demonstration
Student storyNearly 20 percent of students say they’ve used massage as a tool for coping with stress, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
3. Practice mindful relaxation
Mindful meditation involves only one thing—being in the moment. You can do it in most places.
TechniqueFocus on your breathing. Breathe in for three seconds, then release the breath for three seconds. This can help reduce hard-hitting stress almost instantly. When your mind drifts, gently bring it back to the present.
Student story“I do yoga when I’m stressed out. It’s so calming. I don’t bring my phone, and I try not to think about school or anything else while I’m doing it.”
—Melissa, Athens, Ohio
Considerations:Listen to a guided relaxation. Find a 5–10 minute audio online (e.g., Calm.com)—perfect for study breaks during finals.
- Headspace: Guided relaxation to help focus, relieve stress, and improve sleep
- Omvana: Customizable relaxation sessions with sounds, noises, and even quotes that calm and inspire you
- Take a Break!: Reminds you to take breaks in your busy day: two meditation sessions of 7–13 minutes
- Simply Being (~$1.99): Guided relaxation and reduced mental distractions
- The Mindfulness App> (~$1.99): Includes guided meditation sessions of 3–30 minutes
- Mindfulness Meditation (~$12.99/year): Welcomes beginners to basic meditation: An eight-week program of 5–40 minute sessions
4. Random acts of kindness
Did you know that random acts of kindness can not only make someone's day but also make you happy, too? Try it, and see if it works for you.
Lasting good vibesCommunity service in your late teens and early twenties is associated with increased well-being into adulthood, according to a 2010 study.
More evidenceExpressing gratitude and kindness toward others makes us happier, according to the Journal of Happiness Studies (2006).
Student story“Volunteering does leave [you with] a really good vibe. Even doing something once a month makes a difference.”
—Jasmin, San Diego, California
Expert view“Almost any acts of kindness boost happiness.”
—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper Collins, 2011)
ConsiderationsHold the door open, carry groceries, offer directions, give a genuine compliment, or offer free tutoring for someone who’s struggling in school.
+ Try using a charitable search engine such as goodsearch.com—pick a charity, and each time you search, money goes to the charity of your choice.
The student guide to quick-and-easy random acts of kindness
“I like to make a healthy dinner for someone who is having a hard time or a stressful day.”
—Alissa, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
“I have walked up to a number of people [tourists] to help them find where they are and where they need to go.”
—Kevin, Camarillo, California
“I’ve paid $5 in tolls for however many people behind me. It’s a blast if they catch up to me and wave. Even if they don’t, I have a happy secret because they don’t know it was me.”
—Jane, West Barnstable, Massachusetts
“Simply letting people know you are there, or texting people you don’t normally talk to, or strangers, and letting them know you care about them. The littlest things can mean the most.”
—Johnathan, Fitchburg, Massachusetts
“My favorite act of kindness is creating and sending cards to children with cancer.”
—Vanessa, Newburgh, New York
5. If-then planning
When you schedule a task, treating it as an important part of your day, you’re more likely to accomplish your goal. Simply insert a time and action on your to-do list (e.g., If it’s Tuesday at 6 p.m., then I’ll be studying at home for my exam).
EvidenceTo-do lists can sometimes seem insurmountable. They become far more useful when you add an if-then statement that anticipates when and where you’ll address a task, according to multiple studies.
- If I haven’t finished my paper by noon, then I will make it my top priority after lunch.
- If it is 3 p.m., then I’ll go pick up my prescription.
- If it is Wednesday evening, then I’ll go out for a run.
- If it’s Sunday at 6 p.m., then I’ll call my friend back.
ToolsSticky notes, planners, whiteboards, and multiple calendars for daily, weekly, and long-term goals and deadlines.
6. Write it down
You’ve probably heard that writing can help relieve stress. The specific approach matters.
Expert view“Focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome or the causes of a stressful event.”
—Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change
Student story“Don’t think; just let the pen guide itself. You will be amazed at what comes out. Problems are solved; issues and burdens are lifted.”
—Jane, West Barnstable, Massachusetts
- Pennebaker writing: (Time: 15+ minutes, 3–4 consecutive days.)
Write about a problem you’re experiencing.
- Best possible selves: (Time: four consecutive nights.)
Pretend to be Future You, and write about your life—not the outcome (e.g., your dream job) but how you got there (e.g., doing an internship, going to college).
- George Bailey technique: (Time: indefinite.)
Write about all the ways a good thing in your life might not have occurred (e.g., you wouldn’t have met your best friend if you took French instead of German).
Writing techniques and prompts
- Listen to what James Pennebaker has to say about his approach to working through a problem.
+ Watch the video
- Try gratitude writing: Writing down things you are grateful for may help ease stress and build resilience, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2008).
- Just do it: Try using a prompt to get started.
+ Here are some ideas
7. Put on some beats
Music you love or that makes you get moving provides immediate stress relief. Don’t hold back from singing along.
EvidenceUplifting music can improve well-being and liveliness, reduce stress-related hormones, and alleviate feelings of depression, according to a 2003 study in the Journal of Music Therapy.
Student storyIn a recent Student Health 101 survey, 75 percent of respondents identified listening to certain songs or music as a quick-fix strategy for coping with stress.
ConsiderationsMix up your music with ideas from Pandora or Spotify, dig into iTunes, or ask some friends if you can take a look at their music library.
Do you have a favorite beat that lifts your mood?
- “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon
- “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty
- “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves
- “Roar” by Katy Perry
- “Pocket of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield
- “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
- “Happy” by Pharrell Williams
- “You Make My Dreams Come True” by Hall & Oates
- “One for the Money” by Escape the Fate
- “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire
- “Cello Wars (Star Wars Parody) Lightsaber Duel” by The Piano Guys
Genres & artists:
- Buddy Holly
- ’50s rock, doo-wop
- The Coasters
- Frank Sinatra Pandora station
- Gospel music
8. Fun & games
Not getting enough play time? Games alone or with friends can offer a break from stress or a task while keeping your mind sharp. Laughter helps ease the angst, too.
During exams and other intense times, quick games can help relieve stress and provide immediate entertainment. Try these alone or with friends. If you’re at risk of compulsive gaming, though, wait until the school year is over.
Student story“Playing a game for a couple of minutes [helps with my stress].”
—Austin, sophomore, Indianapolis, Indiana
- Apps such as Heads Up or Words With Friends
- Game night: deck of cards, trivia, Apples to Apples, Boggle, or Bananagrams
- Sudoku or crossword puzzles
- Funny story games like Consequences or Mad Libs
- Classic board games
Card games: War, Speed, Go Fish, bridge, rummy, poker, Black Jack
“Speed is a card game that can provide a lot of excitement in less than a minute. And you can play it with a friend so two people lose stress!”
—Emily, EauClaire, Wisconsin
Do-it-yourself toys: Assemble a small hoop and shoot balled-up paper for instant mini-basketball
“My [friend] and I love to empty our ice trays by throwing the cubes in the sink from a distance. Bonus points for trick shots (landing in a glass, hitting potted plants, etc.). Just make sure to refill them when you’re done, or you might ruin other people’s beverage plans!”
—Thomas, New Brunswick, Canada
Active video games: Zumba Fitness Core or other games for Nintendo Wii
“It’s uplifting, and Zumba Fitness Core gets me into shape. It’s so awesome that anyone can do it.”
—Olga, Ontario, Canada
Creative building computer games: Roller Coaster Tycoon or The Sims
“It gives me control of something when I stress over something uncontrollable.”
—Amanda, Glassboro, New Jersey
Smart phone/tablet quick games: Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Quiz Up
“I like playing Words With Friends and What’s That Phrase?”
—Vanessa, San Diego, California
What can I do right now that will help?: University of Texas
Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change:
Timothy Wilson (Little, Brown & Company, 2011).
Sofia Anagnos, doctor of physical therapy, Jackson Clinics, Fairfax, Virginia.
Dante Baker, licensed massage therapist, Dante’s Peak Performance, Reston, Virginia.
Jordan Friedman, health educator and president of The Stress Coach Inc., New York City.
Bowman, N., Brandenberger, J., Lapsley, D., Hill, P., et al. (2010). Serving in college, flourishing in adulthood: Does community engagement during the college years predict adult well-being? Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2(1), 14–34.
Gallo, I. S., Keil, A., McCulloch, K. C., Rockstroh, B., et al. (2009). Strategic automation of emotion regulation. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 96(1), 11.
Hirokawa, E., & Ohira, H. (2003). The effects of music listening after a stressful task on immune functions, neuroendocrine responses, and emotional states in college students. Journal of Music Therapy, 40(3), 189–211.
Holland, K. (2014). Healthline: The best meditation iPhone & Android Apps of the year 2014. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-slideshow/top-meditation-iphone-android-apps
Kunikata, H., Watanabe, K., Miyoshi, M., & Tanioka, T. (2012). The effects measurement of hand massage by the autonomic activity and psychological indicators. Journal of Medical Investigation, 59(1–2), 206–212.
Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217–1224.
Massage therapy can relieve stress. (2006). American Massage Therapy Association position statement. Retrieved from https://www.amtamassage.org/statement2.html
Otake, K., Shimai, S., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Otsui, K., et al. (2006). Happy people become happier through kindness: A counting kindnesses intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 361–375.
Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., & Griffin, M. (2005). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15(5), 319–337.
Rubin, G. (2013, January). The Happiness Project [Happiness interview: Sonja Lyubomirsky]. Retrieved from https://www.gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/01/we-have-found-that-almost-any-types-of-acts-of-kindness-boost-happiness
Student Health 101 survey, May 2016.
Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change. New York City: Little, Brown & Company.
Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., et al. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854–871.