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Ways to Overcome Grad School Stress

November 27, 2015
By GradProSkills

Stress less!

That feeling that you can never work hard enough. Constantly being overwhelmed. Having a hard time completing tasks that should be easy. Being unable to focus. Successfully completing graduate studies is hard enough work without having to deal with the warning signs of what James Hayton called “PhD stress”. In reality, these symptoms can affect anyone working their way through grad school, and they can be a sign that you need to re-think how you’re going about things.

  • Some of the signs that Hayton notes - “Feeling like you don’t belong on a PhD program, and that you will be ‘found out’,” for example - fall into the same categories as imposter syndrome, that nagging feeling of inadequacy “that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.” If you recognize yourself in this statements, take a look at our post on beating imposter syndrome. Some of these tips on overcoming imposter syndrome - having a support group, for example - are also useful in de-escalating stress.
  • The first step is taking a moment to stop what you’re doing and evaluate your situation.
  • If you’re in crunch mode, as many are by this point in the semester, this will allow you to find out what’s most important to prioritize, and put those tasks at the top of your list. “By prioritizing your work, you can control spending the most time and energy on the most important projects,” as Berkeley’s University Health Services put it.​ 
  • All Concordia students, regardless of whether you have finals approaching or are in a strenuous work cycle, can also benefit from Concordia News’ tips on beating exam stress, like the importance of taking breaks, thinking of the big picture and having a support network.
  • For example: just a bit of physical activity every day (a 15-minute walk a couple of times a day) can make a big difference in your outlook.
  • Over at the Cheeky Scientist, Cathy Sorbara recommends doing “one thing for yourself each day,” whether that means yoga, a walk over lunch, actually cooking dinner (no frozen pizza for you!), or doing team sports.
  • Ashley Sanders’ piece for Inside Higher Ed looks at how stress in grad school can become traumatic, and outlines a detailed step-by-step process to developing resilience. She suggests journaling to suss out how you respond to emotions like shame and fear. Journaling will help you then identify the causes of these emotions (for grad students, writing, participating in class, or working in the lab can all be triggers, for example). Once you’ve identified these stressful factors, she suggests many different avenues to working on them.
  • Learning to say no to tasks that either don’t help you move on your path, or you’re not willing to do, will help you both now and in the long run, since you’ll be able to concentrate on the work that is most important to you. If you’re having trouble saying no (especially if the person asking is in a position of authority), try using this handy formulation from PhD Student: “This is a really busy time for me right now, and I am not sure if I will be able to dedicate myself to this in the way that is needed.”
  • Whether you’re working on final papers or in a heavy work cycle, don’t forget to take lots of breaks. Between December 2 and 8 there will be several pet-therapy dog sessions taking place in the libraries (both Vanier and Webster). It’s a perfect opportunity to help yourself de-stress before attacking your work with renewed vigor.

You can do it!

Above all, writes Hayton, “trust in your own ability that whatever happens, success or failure, you will be OK.” Remember that “you will cope. You will find a way.” If you’re looking to acquire long-term stress management techniques or review the behaviours that have the greatest impact on your health, consider registering for our health-related workshops such as Stress Management: A Practical Guide.


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