Capture your calm: 8 small steps to stress less

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Rate this article and enter to win
The semester is coming to an end, and that usually means finals, projects, and papers. Feeling under pressure? 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 “Being outside can serve as a distraction and pleasant escape from the stresses of life.”
    —Dr. Sofia Anagnos, The Jackson Clinics in Fairfax, Virginia
  • Student story “Going outdoors and sitting in nature, at the creek near our campus, really helped me alleviate stress.”
    —Andy K., second-year student at the University of Delaware in Newark.
  • Considerations 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 offer massage through the health or fitness center. Also check out your campus for Stressbusters, a program that trains students to give free five-minute back rubs and provides wellness resources. Learn more.
  • 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 tools Use a tennis or lacrosse ball to roll over tight muscles, or look for foam rollers at your school’s fitness center. Need a demonstration?
  • Student story Students who participated in the Stressbusters program reported a 39 percent reduction in overall stress scores, according to an internal study (2012).

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 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 S., third-year student at Ohio University in Athens.
  • Considerations Listen to a guided relaxation. Find a 5—10 minute audio online—perfect for study breaks during finals.

Free apps

  • 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

Low-cost apps

  • 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 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: “Although I work two jobs, go to school, and take care of my three-year-old, volunteering actually does leave a really good vibe. Even doing something once a month makes a difference.”
    —Jasmin M., Ashford University
  • 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.

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 K., North Idaho College, Coeur d’Alene
  • “I have walked up to a number of people [tourists] to help them find where they are and where they need to go.”
    —Kevin C., California State University, Channel Islands
  • “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 B., Cape Cod Community College, 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 J., Fitchburg State University, Massachusetts
  • “My favorite act of kindness is creating and sending cards to children with cancer.”
    —Vanessa P., Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh, New York

Students Outdoors Playing Chess

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  “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 B., Cape Cod Community College, West Barnstable, Massachusetts
  • Exercises
    • 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 college).

Writing techniques and prompts

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 CampusWell survey, almost 70 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:


  • “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

  • Chevelle
  • Buddy Holly
  • 50‘s rock, doo-wop
  • The Coasters
  • Frank Sinatra Pandora station
  • Gospel music

Thanks to our student contributors: Maureen S., Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey; Ilene H., Park University, Parkville, Missouri; Ryan S., University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Freeman C., Ridgewater College, Willmar, Minnesota; Sarah O., South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City; Jenna H., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay; Tammie G., Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Michael K., University of California, Los Angeles; Hannah S., Austin Community College, Texas; Monica S., Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Weatherford.

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.

  • Student story “Playing mind-stimulating games and puzzles that involve thinking and logic help me de-stress.”
    —Brooklyn N., Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh, North Carolina
  • 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
“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 D., University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire

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, New Brunswick, Canada

Active video games
Games for Nintendo Wii including Zumba Fitness and Wii Sports

“I play Wii Sports like boxing and bowling. Both are a great way to have fun and reduce stress. I plan on trying Wii Fit Plus very soon.”
—Stacy Z., Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh, North Carolina

Creative building computer games Roller Coaster Tycoon, The Sims, or Minecraft.
“Designing a world, house, cave, etc. [in Minecraft] lowers my stress stemming from the very rigid schedule
of my coursework.”
—Jason S., Suffolk University Law School, Boston, Massachusetts

Smart phone/tablet quick games Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Quiz Up
“I like playing Words With Friends and What’s That Phrase.”
—Vanessa J., Ashford University

Other ways you can ease stress

Capture your calm

Get help or find out more [survey_plugin]