By Mary Ryerse and Michelle Berkeley

It’s “that time of year” when mid-term exams, finals, holidays, deadlines and more can take their toll on students and those who support them.

Students of all ages can be stressed out. In fact, 31 percent of teens say their stress levels have increased in the past year and report their stress to be at levels that are much higher than what they believe to be healthy. Regardless of the nature of the stressors — academic, financial, social, familial, extracurricular, or all of the above–there are several quick, actionable strategies that can help combat stress.

Before we share a few apps and actions, please allow us to put this into a broader context.

We know there are lots of keys to good overall mental health. These include:

  • Basic needs – sleep, exercise, nutrition (there’s even a Plant Nanny app to help track water)
  • Healthy relationships – having a sense of connection, belonging and support
  • Emotional wellness – coping effectively with feelings
  • Mindset – practicing gratitude and positive thinking

When we encounter stressful situations, it’s easy to lose our mental health balance and not know how to manage the stress. One of the best things we can do is add simple tools to our coping toolkits so when stress and worry and anxiety arise, we have a plan.

Some of these apps have built-in feedback systems, in some cases providing immediate formative feedback.

Breathing

One of the simplest places to start for stress-reduction and relaxation is breathing. Thankfully, breathing is one of those things that can be taught without an app, so we will include a couple of our favorite ‘tech-free’ strategies along with a handful of apps. Most are free or low-cost unless otherwise indicated. These were listed with an eye toward students, but could pertain to anyone (those that are particularly geared towards younger students are noted; otherwise should be generalizable across kids, teens and adults).

General strategies:

  • 4-7-8 Breathing. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven and breathe out for eight.  Dr Weil’s site includes an overview of the strategy and a video.
  • Soft Belly Breathing. While maintaining a soft belly breath in the nose and out the mouth; could count 4 in and 8 out.
  • Mantra. Say or think something repeatedly; could be a phrase, a verse, a name + a word (e.g. Michelle, calm).
  • Chi Gung. The Chinese put their tongues on the gums behind the front teeth, and breathe in and out through the nose, taking maximum oxygen in with a minimal amount of effort and believing positive chi comes into the body on the breath in and negative chi releases from the body on the exhale.

Free or Low Cost Apps (Unless Otherwise Noted)

  • BioBreathing – This app uses biofeedback breathing that allows the user to pace inhales, exhales and breathing cycles. Free.
  • Breath2Relax – A stress management tool with information on stress effects on the body and practice breathing exercises to help users with stress management through breath work. Free.
  • Inner Balance – A biofeedback tool from HeartMath, requiring a heart rate sensor to measure the user’s heart rhythm. Heart rate sensors priced from $129 – $159.
  • MyCalmBeat – A brain exercise by My Brain Solutions connecting breathing rate, heart rate patterns and the brain’s ability to deal with stress. Free.
  • Bye Bye Butterflies: Seven Ways to Breathe Out Worry – A children’s book for ages 3+ intended to support children, parents, and families in developing healthy ways to deal with feelings and stress management strategies. $12.

Interactive and/or Game-Based Relaxation

There are several options for game-based stress relief connecting the mind and body through focused activities:

  • Happify. This app supports users in taking control of their emotional wellbeing. Short interactive games and exercises are evidence-based to reduce stress, overcome negative thinking and much more. Free with optional subscription enhancements. Recommended for age 17+.
  • MeMoves – A sensorimotor self-regulation program designed to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and decrease stress, improve mood and enhance ability to focus. Home Download prices starting at $149. Recommended for ages 3+.
  • Koi Pond Lite – This self-designed, realistic Koi pond accompanied by pleasant mood music creates soothing effects for the user. Free. For all ages.
  • Fluid 2 – The surface of the app-compatible device is transformed into an interactive liquid to keep kids (and adults) busy and relaxed. Free.
  • Sand Garden – The user creates their very own zen garden while the sand realistically shapes from the touch of the finger. $2.99. For all ages.
  • Tesla Toy – An interactive toy, the touch of the screen makes an electrical field causing thousands of particles to react in different ways. $1.99. For all ages.
  • Doodle Buddy or Real Chalkboard – Use different color paints and chalks and accompanying special effects to create original art. Free. For all ages.

For more on relaxation, check out these Relaxation Techniques for Health from the National Institute of Health.  

Music and Mindfulness

The benefits of calming music or guided mindfulness exercises are plentiful. These apps use music and voice to reset the mind.

  • Free Relaxing Nature Sounds – An app offering tranquil soundscapes that let the mind de-stress or prepare for sleep. Free.
  • Calm – Through music and guided practice, this app assists the user in reducing stress and inducing sleep through daily exercises. Free with subscription options for $12.99/month or $59.99/year.
  • Smiling Mind – A mindfulness-focused app developed by psychologists and educators with a mission to provide accessible, lifelong mindfulness tools. Free.
  • Take a Break! – Stress relief in the form of voice-guided 7 minute work break relaxations or 13 minute stress relief meditations with or without accompanying music. Free.
  • Wellscapes – Nature heals the mind and body through 5 minute audio + visual effects – offering peaceful nature sounds and videos. Free. Wellscapes KIDS coming soon.
  • Stop, Breathe and Think – An app with emotional check-ins and recommended short, guided mindfulness exercises. Free with subscription options starting from $9.99/month to $58.99/year. Also available in Stop, Breathe and Think Kids.

Whether it’s breathing techniques, games or music, there’s a best fit for different individuals and different situations. Depending on our stress response — overexcited or under-excited — there is a tool to calm down negative energies or stimulate positive energies. Incorporating these practices into our daily routines takes, well, practice. It is advised to start small and simple and practice when you aren’t particularly stressed, so when a high-stress time comes, you will be prepared with your personal best stress management method.

This list was adapted from Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota Department of Pediatric Pain, Palliative Integrative Medicine Program.

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