Stress in Graduate School Can Sneak Up On You
“I don’t like your numbers,” my doctor said. “What have you been eating?” he asked with a disgusted expression in his face.
I remember thinking “You don’t want to know”, so I shrugged my shoulders and just gave him a generic reply.
“Well, whatever is around,” I said with a forced smile.
“This can’t go on, Dora. You are 20 lbs. overweight. At this rate of gaining weight, you will be obese in 3 months. ”
I thought he was kidding.
I had always been one of the skinniest girls in my class.
But this time was different. I knew my weight had been climbing up, as I could not fit into my jeans anymore.
I had become “sweatpants girl” because I had no time or money to buy new clothes.
The funny thing was that I didn’t eat junk foods.
Or any foods for that matter.
My diet consisted mostly of fruit shakes – the “healthy” ones that are supposed to have all your vitamin needs and protein as well.
The problem was that I never bothered look at the calorie content until the day my doctor called me overweight.
When I looked at the label, I saw that one bottle had more than 500 calories!
Sometimes I achieved my daily goal of 1000 words per day, but other days I didn’t even reach a 100 words.
My committee gave me a firm deadline to hand in my final draft of my dissertation, and if I didn’t meet the deadline, I would have to wait until the next semester to have another committee meeting.
There was no guarantee that my committee would let me graduate the following semester, because at every meeting they raised their expectations.
“I have to finish my dissertation this semester, or I will never graduate,” was the thought that kept racing through my mind every day as I tried to make progress on my writing.
No wonder that I lost my appetite.
I was under so much pressure, that I couldn’t eat or sleep.
I kept telling myself that “I shouldn’t be so stressed”, and “I should stop worrying.”
But these thoughts just made me feel worse.
The more I tried to push the stress away, the stronger my negative feelings became, and the tougher it was to concentrate.
I just drank “healthy” fruit and protein shakes to get me through the day, and take my mind off the stress I was experiencing.
It was only after I finished my dissertation that I realized that trying to avoid stress, was what had caused my stress and weight to snowball.
The more you try to run away from stress, the worse it becomes.
Stop running away. It’s time to face your stress, and use it to your advantage.
How to Use Stress to Your Advantage in Graduate School
Did anyone ever tell you to “stop worrying” or “stop being so stressed”?
This type advice always made me either more worried or more stressed because I felt like there was something wrong with me.
If you are stressed, there is nothing wrong with you. Stress is a natural part of life.
Working on your dissertation may be one of the most stressful part of your life right now, but after you finish graduate school will face new sources of stress in your career.
You can’t make problems and stress go away, but you can change your attitude towards them.
What if instead of letting stress ruin your health and relationships, you could use your stress as fuel to overcome your obstacles?
If you learn how to pay attention to your body signals you can turn stress and worrying into action-oriented thinking.
5 Ways to use use stress to your advantage to make progress
1. Recognize that worrying is a signal from your body to take action.
If you are worried about something, you have two choices: 1) build up more anxiety, or 2) think about how you want to this problem to be resolved.
You may be tempted to choose the first option.
There is some comfort in feeling like the victim when something does not go according to plan.
If you choose the second option, however, you will save yourself time that you would have spent worrying, and you will come up with the solution for solving your problem
2. Define the real problem before you get caught up in your worries.
Let us assume that you are worried because you and your advisor disagree on the direction of your thesis, and you wonder whether you will graduate on time.
At this moment you have two choices. You can continue worrying, or you can ask yourself what the real problem is.
Are you worried that your advisor is expecting you to complete a project that will take six months? Or, is he asking you to work on a boring project?
You will have made significant progress in conquering your worry if you can define in one or two sentences what is bothering you.
One possibility might be: “I am worried because my advisor is asking me to reanalyze my data and now I might not meet the deadline for graduating this year.”
Now that you have clarified that you are worried about not graduating this year, you can think about how to solve the problems associated with this situation (e.g. finding funding for another semester).
3. Mentally accept the worst-case scenario
Dale Carnegie, author of “How To Stop Worrying And Start Living,” points out that many people worry because they have not examined their options, nor the consequences of the worst case scenario.
In the above example, the worst-case scenario would be that your graduation would be delayed because your advisor asked you to complete another project.
Mentally accept this scenario by visualizing your classmates lining up for their diplomas while you are sitting in your office crunching numbers.
While this scenario might not be ideal, would you consider it truly catastrophic, or merely inconvenient?
When you mentally accept the worst that could happen, you might realize that
1) it is not necessarily a tragic outcome, and
2) there could be some advantages to the worst-case scenario.
For example, with an additional six months in graduate school, could you finish another publication? Would you have more time to transition into your life after graduation?
You can also brainstorm about ways to prevent the worst case scenario.
If you think that having to repeat all of your calculations will delay your graduation, can you speed up your work by asking a statistician to help you? Is there software that can process your data faster?
As you can see, this type of thinking helps you to weigh your alternatives, rather than build up your anxiety.
4. Turn worry into action-oriented thinking by brainstorming about desired outcome(s).
Graduate students commonly worry about their thesis not having direction.
If you are in this situation, contemplate how you would like things to turn out.
Your desired outcome does not necessarily have to be related to your thesis.
It could be a general goal such as “I wish my advisor and I could agree on what the next step should be.”
In this case, your goal is to reach an agreement, rather than complete a specific project.
5. Beat chronic worrying with meticulous planning.
Some students might superstitiously believe that the more they worry, the more productive they will be.
I used to be one of these students, until I realized that worrying ate up my mental stamina, and leaving me no energy for productive planning.
What is the difference between planning and worrying?
The answer is simple: worrying causes anxiety, and planning does not.
Unfortunately, it is common for students to get emotional about their research.
They worry about solving conflicts with coworkers, fixing instruments, and analyzing unexpected results.
It is understandable if you are concerned about these issues, because they could affect your thesis. On the other hand, it is not worth wasting energy over issues that you have little control over.
Sometimes it is not possible to make your research go faster, or to please everyone in your group.
You are in graduate school to complete your dissertation, and your job is to plan your research as meticulously as possible.
5 Tips to Break Free From Negative Feelings
While stress is a normal part of life, you should not let it ruin your health or relationships.
Here are 5 tips you can use to reduce unhealthy stress.
1. Use your breaks to let go of worries.
What can you do during to your breaks?
Former graduate students suggested cleaning up your space, stretching, drinking water, and taking a walk.
Regular breaks can also serve another purpose: relaxation and letting go of tension.
Did you ever take a break from work (e.g. to eat lunch or dinner) and then realize how tense you had been during the day?
Sometimes you might not realize how worried you have been all day until you try to go to sleep at night.
2. Set aside a few hours every week to connect with your spouse, friends, or support group.
The number one advice for beating stress in graduate school is to socialize with friends or members of a support group.
Plan at least one afternoon or evening every week to connect with your friends.
It easy to get caught up in your worries (e.g. “I wish I had done a better job at group meeting.”), and talking to friends will relieve many of your concerns.
As a graduate student, you are your own boss (yes, your advisor is your boss too, but in the end, you need to make the project come together).
There is little feedback, unless your advisor is very involved with your thesis. Some days you are the only one who can give yourself praise, but many students are self-critical.
Unfortunately, being strict with yourself might make you more anxious and eventually tire you out.
If you have supportive friends, they will probably give you a pat on the back when you are unsatisfied with the presentation you just gave (“Oh, I don’t think you seemed nervous at all.”), or you think that you will never graduate (“I know how you feel, but I am sure things will work out.”).
3. Exercise regularly.
Surrounding yourself with supportive friends is the #1 advice for releasing stress.
The #2 strategy to reduce unhealthy stress is regular exercise.
The general recommendation is to do at least 30 minutes cardio workouts at least three times a week.
If you can go to a gym,
The time invested in exercising has a high return in terms of keeping you healthy, energetic, and relaxed.
If don’t have time to go to a gym, you can still get the benefits of exercise through walking.
Use your lunch breaks to get some fresh air and get your body in motion.
There are also several free apps that you can access through your smart phone that will give you a 10 minute workout in your living room.
In addition to keeping you in shape, cardio workouts will also help you to relax and stay focused during the day.
4. Conquer you inner negative voice.
At one point or another in graduate school, many students doubt that they will ever graduate.
When your project goes well, you will get a sense of accomplishment, but other times you might feel low and think:
“I knew this study would not work out. Maybe I am not meant to be a Ph.D.”
If you have ever experienced self-doubt, think back to the time you were accepted to your doctoral program.
Did you envision graduate school as a series of successful studies without any setbacks?
Whether or not you had prior research experience, you probably knew that not every study would go well.
Nearly every student has setbacks, some more than others.
Rather than putting yourself down, ask yourself what you have learned this time and what you could do to make progress on your thesis.
5. Seek counseling and support if anxiety becomes too difficult to handle.
Exercise, socializing, and planning all help to reduce unhealthy stress.
But sometimes, you need extra help.
A graduate student named Lena practiced meditation and yoga regularly, but she still experienced significant anxiety. “I benefited a lot from cognitive therapy, but I also had to take medication sometimes. I think there was just too much pressure to handle on my own.”
Lena continued going to yoga, meditation, and even art classes throughout graduate school.
While the cognitive therapy and medications helped to decrease her anxiety, she still felt that the other stress-relieving approaches were essential to her recovery.
As a graduate student you might try to do everything on your own, but it is a challenge to handle several life changes simultaneously (e.g. becoming independent, managing a dissertation, possibly getting married or having children).
Counseling deans at your school or your personal physician can probably recommend therapists who work with doctoral students, and are familiar with the challenges of graduate school.
Remember that trying to resist or avoid stress, will just make you feel more stressed.
Stress is a normal part of life, and you can use your stress as motivation to become more resourceful or to reach our for help from others.