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Managing stress and how to relax

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Relaxation sounds like it’s the sort of thing that should come naturally when in fact many people struggle to notice how stressed they actually feel until things start to go wrong. Even when we recognise we’re feeling stressed we often don’t know what the mind and body need in order to relax.

Students often tell us that they have stopped a lot of their regular activities in order to focus on exams, studying and revision and find themselves feeling more and more stressed – unsurprisingly there is a connection. Having regular time away from your studies, exercising regularly, eating properly, getting enough sleep and seeing your friends are all ways we relax. If you stop all these activities then you are likely to feel more stressed. Although it can seem counter intuitive it’s actually MORE important to maintain these things during stressful periods, such as exams, or amid lots of deadlines – the trick to fitting it all is to plan any revision or coursework thoroughly.

To help you do this the university offers support via the Students’ Union, academic support within your department, the Learning Development unit and through peer support – the PASS mentoring scheme can be helpful for first and second year students too. There’s even advice from the NHS on managing exam stress.

Here are some things you may find helpful and some books that explore the subject in more detail. Good Luck.

Quick Relaxation Techniques

This exercise describes several "quick release" techniques which can be done almost anywhere.

But first, here are some pointers that apply to all the exercises that follow:

Get as comfortable as possible. Some of these exercises can be done while waiting in the doctor's office or whenever you are trying to pass the time. It is not necessary to lie down to do them.

Remain passive. Just watch your mind work. Whatever thoughts come to mind are okay. Do not work at it, just let it happen.

Take note of all sounds in the environment and let them pass.

Focus inward on breathing as a natural, easy process.

Whole body tension

Tense everything in your whole body; stay with that tension, and hold it as long as you can without feeling pain.

Slowly release the tension and very gradually feel it leave your body.

Repeat three times.

Visual imagery

Open your imagination and focus on your breathing.

As your breathing becomes calm and regular, imagine that the air comes to you as a cloud – it fills you and goes out. You may imagine the cloud to be a particular colour.

Eye fixation

With your head level and your body relaxed, pick a spot to focus on (eyes are open at this point).

When ready, count five breaths backward. With each breath allow your eyes to close gradually.

When you get to number one, your eyes will be closed. Focus on the feelings of relaxation.

Counting ten breaths backwards

Allow yourself to feel passive and indifferent, counting each breath slowly from 10 to one.

With each count, allow yourself to feel heavier and more relaxed.

With each exhale, allow the tension to leave your body.

Shoulder shrug

Try to raise your shoulders up to your eyes.

Hold for the count of four.

Now drop your shoulders back to a normal position.

Repeat three times.

Shoulder rotation

Rotate your shoulders back, down and around, first one way, then the other.

Do one shoulder, then the other.

Now do both at the same time.

Note: This is also good for back, arms, and neck.

Cat stretch

Stand – feet slightly apart.

Take a deep breath as you stretch your arms over your head.

Slowly exhale as you lean forward, bringing your arms and head down.

Do this slowly and gently five times.


Alone in a quiet place, get as comfortable as you can.  Then focus on a repeated word or phrase such as "calm" or "let it go," silently reciting it with each exhale. Let other thoughts, feelings and images drift away. Practice for 10 to 20-minute sessions.

Activities and hobbies

A warm bath, good book, or soothing music are excellent ways to counter stress. In fact any hobby which absorbs your undivided attention will help you attain peace of mind.


You may be aware that there are many self-help books about stress and relaxation – here’s a few relevant titles that are available in the Self Help collection which is part of the teaching collection on the Ground Floor of Mile End Library:

INGHAM, Christine

Panic attacks, what they are, why they happen and what you can do about them. 

Thorsons; New edition (6 Nov 2000)

Very informative, packed with information about what is happening during a panic attack and what you can do to stop them 



Stress and Relaxation, A Practical Guide to Self-Help Techniques  

Vermilion; New edition (6 Mar 1997)

Full of physical and psychological tips and insights on practical  ways you can learn how to relax



Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

Vermilion; (4 Jan 2007)  

A classic – thought provoking and practical. Jeffers helps the reader to understand how fear gets in the way and how to allow yourself to feel scared and still do what you need to do


MARGO, Sammy

The Good Sleep Guide

Vermilion (27 Mar 2008)

Helpful, short and practical guide to help you get a good night’s sleep




How to Pass Exams without Anxiety: Every Candidate's Guide to Success


How To Books Ltd; 4th Revised edition (Sep 1995)

Classic text on the subject – loads of practical tips and advice




A Guide to Uni Life

Trotman; 1 edition (26 Aug 2009)

What to expect, and what to do about it if things don’t feel right



Isn't It About Time? How to Overcome Procrastination and Get on with Your Life

Worth Publishing (20 Feb 2002)

Practical and supportive guide to dealing with procrastination


FIORE, Neil A.

The now habit : a strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play

Jeremy P Tarcher; Rev Ed edition (23 Mar 2007)

Most of us procrastinate from time to time – if it’s getting your down or you realise you can’t relax as result, this book could really help


FOWLIE, Julie  &  SMALE, Bob

How to Succeed at University: An Essential Guide to Academic Skills and Personal Development 

SAGE Publications Ltd (30 Mar 2009)

Informative and supportive book about managing the challenges of student life




Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World


Piatkus Books (5 May 2011)

A general introduction to the idea of mindfulness and how to incorporate it into everyday life. Includes a CD and an eight-week meditation programme for dealing with the frantic world in which we live.


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