Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Ten Relaxation Tips

Kaiti Shelton

We’re about half way through the semester now, and I’m sure most of us are starting to feel the pressure. Having just completed most of my midterms this week, I can say personally that the stress level that I experience has risen from just a few short weeks ago when school began. Sometimes, students can get lost in their work and forget to take care of themselves. The stress can seem overwhelming and can make all the work you have to do seem that much more daunting.

However, there are very simple things you can do to keep your stress level from rising, and to keep your head fully grounded and focused on the tasks which need to be done. Here are some helpful tips I’ve learned, both from my own stress-management experiences and from my coursework in Music Therapy.

  1. People who work in therapeutic disciplines, as well as those who have particularly stressful jobs, are told to exercise “self-care.” Self-care means that, no matter what you are doing, you make time to do things for yourself. Self-care or “me time” is not optional but necessary for those who have emotionally stressful careers, including students. Self-care can be different for every person, but it is important that you find what it is for you. I find that taking an hour to read a good book helps me to unwind, and at other times I go to the rec center on campus to physically burn off stress. Some people write poetry, spend time tinkering on an instrument, or schedule weekly social events with friends. I know someone who takes an evening in the middle of each week to participate in trivia night with friends at a local restaurant, just because it’s fun and gives her a break from thinking about work. Once you find what self-care is for you, you need to guard it and remember to not forget it. Sometimes self-care is most important when there is the most work piled on top of you. You may think that you’ll never finish your work if you stop working on it, but taking an hour break to make time for yourself can rejuvenate you, and can really increase your productivity and composure when you return to work.

  2. Remember to carry out basic functions of life, no matter how much is on your plate. I have friends who pull all-nighters consistently, and friends who won’t eat before they got X, Y, and Z accomplished. Food and sleep are not rewards you give yourself for getting work done; and you won’t get as much done, in fact, if you skip sleeping and meals. Listen to your body; if you’re tired, take a nap. If you’re still a little hungry or only had a light breakfast as you hurried off to an early class, eat a little more to keep yourself going. One thing I’ve found really helpful is to make a healthy trail mix, and to keep a batch of it in my purse. Sometimes when I am in back-to-back classes between lunch and dinner, I’ll eat a handful of almonds or some dehydrated fruit from the bag as I’m passing between classrooms to boost my energy. Also, learn from your experiences. Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter can tell you the next day is horrible; so if you’ve done this, then make nightly sleep a priority. If you’ve gone from dawn to dusk with one meal or less and hated yourself for being hungry or low-energy all day, then make sure to get a full complement of healthy meals (including a breakfast). Speaking from experience, eating a morning meal does make a world of difference, so even if its just a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, eat something when you wake up in the morning.

  3. Keep a planner or a to-do list. This is a stress management tool as well as an organizational one. Keeping a list of your assignments and other obligations, complete with due dates and important information about each entry, helps you keep track of what you have to do and the order in which it needs to be finished. Find a format that works for you, and keep your system consistent.

  4. Don't forget to breathe. Breathing regulates the body, so if you slow down your breathing and concentrate on making it really rhythmic and relaxed, your entire body will release tension. Yoga classes and meditation are great for this, but sometimes sitting alone in a quiet place where you can focus on breathing without interruptions does the trick as well. You might be surprised how much time elapses, and how much better you feel, if you just get lost in thinking about your breathing for a while.

  5. Create something. I recently spoke with an art therapist about how a blind person could make mandalas, as I will need to make one for a music therapy class later this semester. Traditionally, mandalas are pictures drawn inside circles. They are totally free-form, and are typically done while the person is listening to relaxing music and thinking about how they’re feeling. The idea is that the person’s inner feelings will show in their drawing, and there is a process for interpreting the art. The art therapist gave me some great suggestions as to how I could do this. She suggested that I could mold clay and later secure it to a round surface, or I could keep a “mandala box” and fill it with found objects to be glued onto the circular surface. Found objects can include buttons, pieces of fabric, paper clips, feathers, and anything else of varying size and texture. The cool thing about this method is that it not only creates visual art, but tactile art as well. If you don’t want to create a mandala, you can still mold clay (there’s wonderful clay that doesn’t dry out and can be stored easily), or knit, or just do something with your hands that will produce some kind of product you can be proud of. I’ve found that for me, knitting is a good way to relax, and I always love seeing scarves grow longer and feel proud that I can make my own from a jumble of yarn.

  6. Participate in music assisted relaxation, or progressive muscle relaxation exercise. Students in the expressive arts therapy fields, like art and music therapy, will gladly facilitate these processes for a chance to practice their skills. If you don’t know someone studying to become an expressive arts therapist, you can still do a number of things to facilitate this process on your own. There are plenty of music assisted relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery tracks available for free. An example of one can be found at Lie down and close your eyes. Listen to the relaxing music or ambient noises in the track, and take slow breaths in through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Follow the instructions you are given, which will ask you to do things like tighten certain parts of your body and release them after holding for a few seconds, hold your breath after an inhalation and before an exhalation, and to imagine yourself as being comfortable and warm. If you have a student doing the exercise with you, make sure that they do not ask you to count the number of seconds you’re holding before you release anything. If you’re counting to five before you exhale, or before you release tension somewhere on your body, your mind cannot possibly be fully focused on relaxation and you’re breathing. They should also check how you are reacting to the exercise so they can make adjustments as needed.

  7. Don't frustrate yourself over problems you can’t solve. If you’ve reached an impasse in your work, make a note of the problem and move on to something else. Go to office hours or a tutoring session later for what you are stuck on, but don’t waste time you can be working on other projects.

  8. Make time for social events. Shutting yourself off from the world might seem like a necessity, but humans, even introverted ones, are meant to be social creatures. It is important to have some human interaction that is fun and meaningful outside of classes or office appointments with your professors. Getting involved in a club that has weekly meetings can be a great way to do this. Find something you’re passionate about and like-minded people will wait!

  9. Think positive thoughts. You’re more likely to not be successful if you don’t think you can or will be. Speaking from experience, a positive attitude about the work you have to do, about your courses, and about your performance in them can make all the difference. Don’t beat yourself up if one thing is going wrong; just do what you can to fix it. You’ll also avoid dragging others around you down into the negative netherworld. It’s like the song says, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

  10. Establish a routine. If you’re at all like me, having a routine and knowing what to expect is key to keeping your life in order. I like to know exactly when I need to leave somewhere to get to class on time, and prefer to arrive at least five minutes early. Fit other things, like trips to the gym, meals, and break times, into your routines as well. If you like to read or go for walks, schedule a time once or twice a week to do those things. Having an idea of what you need to do, where you need to go, and when to do specific things will make life a lot less unpredictable, and much more stress free. Pay attention to your routine, and don’t overbook yourself. There is nothing worse than the feeling of being overwhelmed, so make sure that your routine involves more than classes, and isn’t booked solid.

From one student to another, and as someone who is going into a therapeutic field where using these techniques will allow my clients to feel happier and less stressed, I hope that these tips will work for you, too. Each one has worked for me within my past two years at college, and they are strategies I continue to utilize today.