Rate this article and enter to win The semester is coming to an end, and that usually means finals, projects, and papers. Feeling overwhelmed? For most of us, dodging 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.
1. Spend time outdoors
Combine exercise with time outdoors and what do you get? “Green exercise.” Practice yoga in the quad or jog around the reservoir and reap double rewards—and potentially double stress reduction.
- Evidence Exercising 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 Taking an outdoor walk increases Vitamin D levels and helps students beat the winter blues, says Beverly Beuermann-King, a wellness expert and speaker based in Toronto, Ontario.
- Student story “I like to go for long walks or go find a place to sit in the forest quietly.” —Kirsten K., a third-year student at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia
- Considerations The sounds and textures of nature might not inspire inner peace if it’s freezing or pouring, of course. Dress for the elements. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray. Or maybe snowshoes.
2. Massage the stress away
Back rubs and shoulder massages are big hits with students. If this delightful service is not available on your campus, improvise with roommates or an intimate partner. Here’s how.
- Program Some schools, such as the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, offer massage through the health or fitness centre. The University of Toronto in Ontario provides free massages to students every Monday. Other schools offer low-cost massages given by therapists in training or offer free massages through end-of-semester programming. Check with your school to see what options are available.
- Improvise Sore feet from walking back and forth to the library? Freeze a water bottle and roll your feet over it to relax tense muscles.
- Other tools Use a tennis or lacrosse ball to roll over tight muscles, or look for foam rollers at your school’s fitness centre. Need a demonstration?
- Student story “I paid around 10 dollars for a half an hour [massage] session. The entire week’s stress melted away, and I didn’t have to stretch my budget.” —Chris L., University of Alberta, Edmonton
3. Practice mindful relaxation
Mindful meditation involves only one thing—being in the moment. You can do it in most places.
- Technique Focus 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 concentrate on belly breathing for a couple of minutes as a quick way to calm myself.” —Michele G., a second-year student at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia
- Considerations Listen to a guided relaxation. Find a 5—10 minute audio online—perfect for study breaks during exams.
- 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 (~$.99) Guided relaxation and reduced mental distractions
- The Mindfulness App (~$1.99) Includes guided meditation sessions of 3—30 minutes
- Mindfulness Meditation (~$1.99) 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 else’s day, but can make you happy, too? Try it, and see if it works for you.
- Lasting good vibes Community service in college and university is associated with increased well-being into adulthood, according to a 2010 study.
- More evidence Expressing gratitude and kindness toward others makes us happier, according to the Journal of Happiness Studies (2006).
- Student story “Squeezing in a few scheduled volunteer hours is worth it. Knowing that you have made someone else’s day better relieves a bit of your stress and motivates you to get through the rest of your day with a smile on your face.” —Mary M.*, a third-year student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s
- Expert view “Almost any acts of kindness boost happiness.” —Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project (Harper Collins, 2011.)
- Considerations Hold the door open, carry groceries, offer directions, give a genuine compliment, or provide free tutoring. Try using a charitable search engine–pick a charity, and each time you search, money goes to the charity of your choice.
* Name changed for privacy.
The student guide to quick-and-easy random acts of kindness
“I like sharing my home-cooked dinner with my roommates if they’ve had a long day.” —Brian L.*, University of Alberta, Edmonton “I paid for a lady who ran out of change at the grocery store. I was stress-free for the entire day.” —Paulyna M., University of Windsor, Ontario “I give study treats out to fellow students who are studying for midterms.” —Mary M.*, Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s
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 the library for my exam).
- Evidence To-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.
- Examples 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 check in with my parents.
- Tools Sticky 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 (Little, Brown & Company, 2011).
- Student story “I like to write down what I am feeling and draw sketches around it” —Kirsten K., Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia
- 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 graduate school).
- 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 went to a different school).
Writing techniques and prompts
- Listen to what James Pennebaker has to say about his approach to working through a problem.
- 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. For 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.
- Evidence Uplifting 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 story In a recent Student Health 101 survey, over 67 percent of respondents identified listening to certain songs or music as a quick fix strategy for coping with stress.
- Considerations Mix 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?
Students’ recommendations: Songs
- “If I can help somebody” by Mahalia Jackson
- “Closer” by Goapele Mohlabane
- “Dancing queen” by ABBA
- “Triple trouble” by The Beastie Boys
- “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line
- “Love story” by Taylor Swift
- “Roar” by Katy Perry
- “Hey Jude” by The Beatles
- “Diamonds” by Rihanna
Genres & artists
- The Beastie Boys
- Duran Duran
- 80’s music
- Gospel music
Thanks to our student contributors: Brian F., St. Clair College, Windsor, Ontario; Olga J., Algonquin College Woodroffe Campus, Ottawa, Ontario; Trevor B., Humber College, Toronto, Ontario; Candace G., Humber College, Toronto, Ontario; Emily C., Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario; Taylor S., University of Victoria, British Columbia; Abhimanyu M., University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon; Sherry F., Algonquin College, Ottawa, Ontario
8. Fun and 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 finals 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 semester’s over. Try these
- 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 “Playing a game often works for me. Games such as Solitaire have been effective.” —Name and university withheld Do-it-yourself toys Assemble a small hoop and shoot balled-up paper for instant mini-basketball “My roommate 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 W., Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick Active video games Games for Nintendo Wii including Zumba Fitness and Wii Sports “It’s uplifting, and Zumba Fitness Core gets me into shape. It’s so awesome that anyone can do it.” —Olga J., Algonquin College, Ottawa, Ontario Creative building computer games Roller Coaster Tycoon or The Sims. “It gives me control of something when I stress over something uncontrollable.” —Shannon T., University of Calgary, Alberta Smart phone/tablet quick games Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Quiz Up “I like playing Temple Run.” —Dylan K., University of Calgary, Alberta Other ways you can ease stress
Get help or find out more
Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change.
Timothy Wilson (Little, Brown & Company, 2011).