Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Managing stress in graduate school

Graduate school can and should be a fun time, but there are many pressures (often self-induced) put on students that can make continuing education a drudgery. I do not share the philosophy that the students who can tough it out are the better ones. This gives a limited perspective to the field of science if we do not help support people from different backgrounds and with different needs to succeed. After seeing students struggle, especially through the PhD process, I have spent more time talking about the need for managing stress and having a fun time with my students.

Below is a wonderful perspective on taking care of yourself from Dr. Sheri Shiflett, a former CPEL student who has survived graduate school, post-doc, and now a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The ways I find effective for managing stress are helpful no matter what role I have found and/or find myself in: student, graduate student, postdoc, full-time 9-5er, etc. Learning how to take care of yourself is important throughout your life, especially as an adult where you have to be more self-reliant and self-aware in order to effectively manage and solve personal and interpersonal conflicts.

One of the first things I do when I feel overwhelmed is ask myself what *really* needs to get done and by what date. For items that I wanted to accomplish, but don’t necessarily have to be completed immediately, I cut those out and re-prioritize for the moment and/or immediate future.

I also find it effective to set boundaries on my time for work and time for play. You have to build in time for yourself or you will burn out eventually! Figure out what you can let go of and then take an afternoon or a day for yourself to do something that you enjoy which is not “work” in the traditional sense. Make time during the week for your hobbies and time with loved ones. Accomplishing your graduate school and career goals is important, but so is maintaining your sense of self, individuality, personal interests, and relationships.

Learn how to say “no.” People will always ask you to become involved in a plethora of activities and opportunities. You should be strategic and selective in the ones you choose because you only have a limited amount of time and energy. Overcommitting because you feel like you don’t want to let people down is a surefire way to also feel overwhelmed and burnt-out. This doesn’t mean to say no to everything. You should agree to some additional tasks and push your boundaries, but learn how to tell the difference between a little extra push for yourself, which can lead to inspiration, motivation, and networking vs. overcommitting to more than you can handle, which will deflate your confidence and make it more challenging to re-gain and bounce back.

The usual rules apply: limit excesses (e.g., alcohol, partying, staying up late, over-eating), get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and exercise. I have started doing all of these things and it has made a huge difference in how healthy and strong I feel! When I don’t get enough sleep, not only am I generally fatigued, but normal tasks feels so much more difficult to accomplish, and I am also more emotional! It’s easy to distort reality. Make time for yourself to work-out a handful of times a week. You’d be surprised at how much better you can feel from a 20-30 minute walk with a friend around campus or the surrounding are if you don’t have the time or inclination for something more strenuous.

Be gentle with yourself and forgiving when things don’t go your way. Bumps in the road happen and things don’t always go as planned. Strive to do your best work, but don’t be so hard on yourself when the experiment doesn’t go as planned or the boat trip to the island gets cancelled due to high winds, or you forgot about that one last minute assignment. You’re not a superhuman and that’s ok.

Take mini-breaks for yourself. If you’ve been glued to your desk for hours, get up and stretch, take a walk, take 5-10 minutes to meditate and clear your mind.

Take advantage of the counseling options offered to students. My last year of graduate school, I scheduled regular sessions with one of the on-campus counselors (for free!) and she really helped me put my situation and future goals into perspective. She also recommended great relaxation techniques and reading material. It’s also nice to just have a space to vent confidentially and not feel judged.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, stay positive and express gratitude often! My biology teacher in high school had a great one liner that I will never forget, especially in times of hardship and challenge, “This too shall pass!” [This was also a favorite sentiment of Abraham Lincoln’s.] Time will never stop moving forward and life will continually throw obstacles your way: you’re going to get through it one way or another. There will be many tests ahead of you and it’s up to you whether or not you choose a positive spirit in overcoming the obstacles you are faced with or a negative attitude. Studies have shown time and time again that those with positive attitudes, regardless of what life throws their way, tend to be happier and healthier individuals. Taking a moment to express gratitude towards someone, whether it’s a friend, family member, mentor, or even stranger, will help you to reframe the challenges in your life and see that people love you and care about you whether or not all your p-values are < 0.05 or you ace every test. This last step of striving for positivity is key to becoming a more resilient individual and recognizing that it’s very easy to focus on the negative. The negative will keep finding you, but it’s up to you to hunt for and celebrate the positive aspects of your life and any situation you find yourself in. I recommending looking up more information about “resilience” and becoming a resilient individual. The idea is not to eliminate stress or pretend that it doesn’t exist, but to develop a mental outlook to tackle problems head on, overcome adversity, move forward with life and ultimately flourish.