Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated October 2010
Feeling irritable? Performance in school slipping? Ready to just give up? Take a deep breath. You're stressed.
Graduate school can be one of the most stressful times of a person's life, particularly if the student has other responsibilities such as work or a family.
Dealing with stress in graduate school is nearly inevitable given the volume of reading and research students are expected to complete. Graduate students should anticipate a certain amount of stress, but aid is available for those who need help with ways to deal with stress.
Stress is an emotional and bodily reaction to physical, physiological or emotional demands. The two main types of stress are eustress and distress. Eustress keeps a person feeling alert and is often a motivator. Distress occurs when the body overreacts to events and can cause health problems.
What's ailing you
Many grad students dealing with stress suffer from burnout and emotional exhaustion or fatigue. Emotional fatigue can profoundly affect student performance and personal commitment. Most grad students struggle with emotional fatigue at some point, and it leads some to abandon schooling completely.
Stress can be caused by lack of time, financial pressure or an excessive workload. Students who feel a lack of balance and free time are prone to feeling stress. In addition, those who feel they are not receiving enough support from professors and family members often end up feeling stressed.
Dealing with stress in grad school can sometimes boil down to a simple issue of time management, and if a job and family are added to the equation, the situation can worsen. Stress can result from feeling stuck in the monotonous day-to-day and from feeling that you are not moving ahead in life. It is also tied tightly to expectations - whether they are expectations you have of yourself or those that others have of you.
Stress is both a physiological and cognitive issue. Graduate students experiencing burnout may develop physiological symptoms such as decreased stamina, interrupted sleep patterns and weight gain or loss. Other symptoms include psychosomatic complaints, substance abuse and increased blood pressure.
The cognitive elements of stress and emotional fatigue include depression, isolation/passivity, marital/family conflict and aggression. Other elements include rigidity, mental illness and poor self-esteem. These physiological and cognitive issues can lead to a decline in the quality of schoolwork, a change in plans for a degree, harm to interpersonal relationships and jeopardized career plans.
When dealing with stress in school, students must first acknowledge the stress they are feeling for what it is. With the right combination of coping styles and support, stress can be alleviated. Stressed-out students need to be in tune with themselves and their own internal alarms and red flags. Ask yourself questions like:
Have I been neglecting the things I enjoy doing in favor of my studies?
Is my schoolwork suffering from how I feel?
Do I feel as if I am overexerted?
Asking questions and assessing yourself can help you gain perspective and realize that you do not have to be perfect. You can use many coping styles to deal with stress, and managing your time is one of the most helpful. While this may initially sound like a pain, you should try to schedule everything, including some free time, and write that schedule down. Once you have compartmentalized and prioritized your responsibilities, you can come up with a better plan of attack to get them met.
It is imperative that you not allow stress in school to cause you to live an unhealthy lifestyle. You need the proper amount of rest as well as nutritious meals. Do not skip food and sleep to get something done, especially since your work will suffer from it. You will always be able to find some opportunity to take a nap, even if it's only for 30 minutes, and to pack down some sort of snack while studying.
Learning to say "no" is another crucial way of coping with stress, and planning is key in helping you find the ability to do so. You simply cannot do everything, and quality time for yourself is important when dealing with stress.
Keeping a journal can be helpful, as you have the opportunity to analyze destructive statements and identify your strengths and weaknesses. Attitude is extremely important in dealing with stress. Stress-busting attributes include self-confidence, patience and punctuality. You should try to remain positive and have some fun. Your thoughts feed your feelings and actions, so don't dwell on past decisions, just move forward.
Fostering relationships and networking can help you deal with stress. Seek out a classmate with whom you have something in common, as it is likely he or she is dealing with similar stressors. Avoid relationships with people who tempt you to shirk your responsibilities, and look for people who make you feel good about yourself. Reaching out can be the best thing for you.
It's to be expected
Dealing with stress in school is common in grad school, and you are not alone. A recent study by the American College Health Association found that 75 percent of college students feel overwhelmed. We all function best with a certain amount of stress in our lives, but when it becomes too much, we become burnt out. However, life is not a race and should not be treated as such. You should expect unanticipated interruptions, especially if you have a family.
The best time to study is during the period of the day during which you feel the most energetic. We all have our own individual times when we are most physically and mentally alert, so you should schedule classes and study sessions during those times to maximize your effectiveness.
Most grad students are by nature driven, high achievers, and that fosters an environment vulnerable to stress. Sometimes it is helpful to emulate those who seem naturally resistant to stress. These people focus on immediate issues and assume their problems are temporary. They also tend to be optimistic and give themselves credit for a job well-done. Also, you have to recognize that just because you've been a straight "A" student your entire life does not mean you should expect a 4.0 in grad school. Schoolwork is different, expectations are different and results are different. Grades don't matter as much as what you actually learn, so don't lose your mind if you get a "B" on your first research paper. You're still smarter than most of your peers, and you're still setting yourself up for a terrific and successful future.
If you are dealing with stress in school and cannot find relief, perhaps you should seek professional help. After all, it is important to realize what stress really is. Stress is a challenge and an occurrence that promotes growth. Stress is also a natural event that can be viewed as humorous if you have the right attitude.
But stress is also the number-one health problem in the United States. For more information on how to deal with stress, and make sure it doesn't affect your health, visit http://www.stress.org and the American Psychological Association online.
Don't worry, you can get through this. Just keep telling yourself it's not that bad. It's not that bad.
Photo by arj03