It's nearing midnight. Johns Hopkins University junior Abby Burch and several other students are setting up a row of chairs in front of the all-night reading room at Gilman Hall. An Enya CD is warbling in the background when Burch barks out a command.
"OK you guys, now when people walk by, offer them back rubs," she cries. "Not in a creepy way."
It's midterm time at the Homewood campus, and students are in a zombie-like state -- their eyes glazed and unfocused while the gray matter processes Italian politics, linear algebra and the collected tragedies of Aeschylus.
"I call it general Hopkins anxiety," said sophomore Lindsay Bass, 19, a psychology major.
That's where Burch and her "Stressbusters" come in. The students are trained in the basics of massage therapy to knead knotted muscles, loosen spines and rub down stiff shoulders.
About seven Stressbusters, both male and female, were on hand the other night to work over tense students. About 150 volunteers have been through the training this year.
"We were very pleasantly surprised," said Allegra Hamman, a nurse practitioner with the Student Health & Wellness Center who helped bring the Stressbusters massage concept to Hopkins. A health education director at Columbia University in New York created the program.
All-night study sessions and anxiety over exams can wreak havoc on nervous and immune systems, Hamman said. She said she often sees a spike in the number of students who go to the health center in search of relief from colds and infections during exam periods. She thought the back rubs could help break the cycle.
"Because I see the students as patients, I have become aware of the connection between stress and illness," said Hamman, who attended the rubdown session at Gilman Hall. "Stress is probably part of being a college student, but we hope we can help them handle it more appropriately."
Many college and university campuses across the country have started offering massages as part of their regular health clinic services, but those therapists usually charge a fee, she said.
Hopkins has a licensed massage therapist who has regular office hours and also charges a fee. The Stressbuster back rubs are free and last 5 to 7 minutes.
Besides Wednesday night's session, which started at 11 p.m. and went for about two hours, the Stressbusters will be giving back rubs from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today in the lobby of the Hopkins recreation center. Stressbusters are also available by appointment for dorm, faculty and staff events, and yes, for dreaded finals.
The concept of helping students cope with the anxiety of test-taking has taken root nationwide at many campuses, some of which provide dogs for students to pet and cuddle before they take big exams.
Others sponsor nap times and "stress-free zones" where students can listen to soothing music, drink spring water and eat healthy snacks.
At the University of Maryland, College Park, where students have taken their midterms, the Center for Health and Wellbeing offered stress-management classes but no free massages, said Claire Wingfield, graduate assistant and acting coordinator of the center.
She said the classes, which teach sleep and relaxation techniques, are especially popular with freshmen.
At Hopkins, it took a few minutes -- and a few rounds of "Hey, how about a free massage?" -- before two young women sat down.
Stressbuster Tim Schwedes, a 20-year-old sophomore, immediately went to work on one of the women's shoulders, neck and arms.
Schwedes, whose mother is a licensed massage therapist, seemed to have the technique down.
It wasn't long before fellow sophomore Michelle Park, 20, a stressed-out public health major, was sinking down in her chair, her eyes shut and her hands limp.
"It was great," she said of the massage after Schwedes had finished. "It was kind of weird at first to have someone touching you, but you get used to it."
The Stressbusters -- some of whom had volunteered to give back rubs at a recent fall festival on campus -- said that women often have more questions, and maybe a few concerns, about the service.
But as soon as they find out that it's free, and that there are strict boundaries in terms of touching, they often jump at the opportunity to get some stress relief.
"This is about relaxation. This is not about getting a date," Hamman said.
Some of the students who ambled by the Stressbuster station on their way to and from the Gilman Hall reading room said they were so far behind in their studying and report writing that they didn't have time for a five-minute back rub.
"I have so much work to do," one young woman said as she zipped past the Stressbusters.
"I'm going to be up until 4 a.m.," another student called out.
About two dozen students accepted the massage offer, including economics, math and environmental engineering majors. At least one was a Boston Red Sox fan, which didn't go over well with Stressbusters who had rooted for the Yankees.
One happy client was Sean Ferguson, 19.
"Errrr," the sophomore said, his eyes closed.
"Is that a good `errrr?'" asked Burch, who was rubbing his back.
"Yes," he said. "That's definitely a good `errrr.'"