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Ways to Overcome Grad School Stress

April 4, 2023
By GradProSkills

Are you feeling that you can never work hard enough? Are you constantly being overwhelmed? Are you having a hard time completing tasks that should be easy? Or are you being unable to focus? You are not alone! We’re here to share some tips on how to relieve some Grad School stressors.

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.

Stress can also be destructive, but if you focus that, it can have the opposite effect! Here are some steps to begin with:

  • Begin here: the first step is taking a moment to stop what you’re doing and evaluate your situation.
  • Recognize the imposter syndrome: Feeling like you don’t belong on a grad program, and they will soon find out, 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,” Hayton. If you recognize yourself in this statements, be mindful that they are not always true. Some of tips on overcoming imposter syndrome, such as having a support group, are also useful in de-escalating stress.
  • Prioritize: 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.​
  • Find the resources: all Concordia students, regardless of whether you have finals approaching or are in a strenuous work cycle, benefit from Health and Wellness services. Do not forget the importance of small steps such as taking breaks, thinking of the big picture and having a support network.
  • Exercise: remember 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.
  • Treat yourself: 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.
  • Write it down: 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.
  • Learn to say no: saying 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.”
  • Take a break: whether you’re working on final papers or in a heavy work cycle, don’t forget to take lots of breaks. Between April 6 and 19 there will be several mental health events and activities at Concordia. These are perfect opportunities 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 From stress to self care: The radical history and practice of self care with a special focus on racialized communities.


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