5 Helpful Steps for Better PhD Stress Management

Doing a PhD is stressful and isolating under the best of circumstances.

And in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly in not the best of circumstances these days.

Stress and anxiety run rampant among PhD students. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. We all know this. And yet, we rarely talk about it. Why?

PhDs are well-equipped to examine the external world. From quarks to the cosmos, from singe historical figures to entire civilizations, we study all manner of abstruse and abstract scholarly topics.

Yet, when the time comes to turn the investigative microscope upon ourselves, we, uh, don’t do so great.

So, in this week’s article, we’d like to go over some tips and advice for PhD stress management.

We’ll talk about the importance of normalizing depression, how to practice mindfulness and work/life balance, and finally how to seek on-campus professional help.

PhD Stress Management Step #1: Normalize It

Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and/or depression  in graduate school.

Everyone.

Whether they talk about it or not.

Even though depression is a startlingly common phenomenon, people tend to experience it in a state of loneliness and isolation. This is partly due to social stigma and partly due to the nature of the condition itself.

It’s a cruel irony worthy of Shakespeare, or one of Dante’s circles of Hell.

So, the first step in dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression is to openly acknowledge how common it is, particularly among PhD students.

A survey in September put the numbers at 40% generalized anxiety and 37% major depressive disorder among STEM PhDs alone.

Remember, everyone feels depression sometimes. That doesn’t make it okay.

If you’re suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression, talk about it.

If you think someone you know may be depressed, talk about it.

PhD Stress Management Step #2: Practice Mindfulness and Self-Care

What is mindfulness?

Some people define mindfulness as a specific form of meditative exercise. But for our purposes, mindfulness simply means becoming more aware of yourself and your immediate surroundings.

Mindfulness can be summed up in three words: be here now.

If you’re struggling with anxiety or feeling the onset of the dreaded imposter syndrome, take a step back from your work.

Try, just for a little while, to forget about the past and future. Focus on daily life. Live for today onlyDo your PhD research for today. Write what you need to write today. You’ll do more work tomorrow, and the next day. Worry about that later.

The other half of mindfulness is self-care. Learn to recognize your stressors and devise methods to cope. Avoid negative coping mechanisms.

Eat well, get regular exercise, and socialize regularly (insofar as that’s possible these days).

One good way to instill mindfulness into your work life is to create a to-do list for each day. Write down all the tasks that must be completed today.

These can include self-contained tasks (getting groceries, replying to an email) or parts of larger projects (write one paragraph of your dissertation; grade the first 10 student papers).

The key is to practice time management and break down big tasks into manageable chunks. Decide exactly which chunks must be done now.

When you’re done, stop. Take some time to care for yourself.

PhD Stress Management Step #3: Find Work/Life Balance

As we’ve discussed before, achieving a healthy work/life balance for PhD students is no simple matter.

With the academic job market more competitive than ever before, the pressure to work can be overpowering.

PhD students are asked to conduct research, write your dissertation, teach or TA, present at conferences, apply for grants, and churn out a steady stream of articles and book reviews. If you’re on the job market, add a mountain of job applications to the mix.

Weirdly, the sheer amount of work PhD students is often both the cause of and solution to our depression. The work drives us into depression, and we cope by burying ourselves ever deeper into our work.

In the worst cases, we start to feel that all we know how to do is work. Work is life; life is work; ‘a equals b.’

If this describes your situation, the best advice we can give is to change environments.

Visit your parents for a few weeks. Take a vacation. Stay at a friend’s house. Go somewhere besides the place where you currently live.

While you’re there, do housework for them. Write a screenplay. Learn to play banjo. Do literally anything besides your PhD work.

The point of all this is to leave your grad-school work behind. Force some ‘life’ back into your life. Build work/life balance.

PhD Stress Management Step #4: Reflect on Your Career Goals

If your grad-school work is consistently making you depressed, you may wish to seriously reconsider whether pursuing a PhD is the right career path for you.

We mean this with no negative judgment whatsoever.

Rest assured, quitting your PhD will not close off any post-academic career paths. Employers are interested in skills, experience, and enthusiasm far more so than a credential like a PhD.

If you’re unhappy or if your career plans have changed, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with quitting.

For a more in-depth discussion, check out this article.

PhD Stress Management Step #5: Seek On-Campus Mental Health Services

Don’t ever be afraid to seek professional help.

One of the truly great things about a graduate student stipend is that it often comes with generous health coverage. If you’re at a university with a strong medical school, you likely have access to world-class mental health services right there on campus.

Seriously, if you’re lucky enough to have health coverage, use it!

Call up your campus health center and schedule an appointment with a therapist. Just having someone to talk to about PhD stress management can make a world of difference.

Moreover, don’t be afraid to try antidepressants if a psychiatrist recommends them.

Sadly, as with depression itself, there’s a fair bit of social stigma surrounding antidepressants. There is, of course, no good reason for this.

Pain occurs both physically and mentally. Aspirin is for physical pain; antidepressants are for mental pain. That’s all there is to it.

What’s more, mental health treatments have been shown to transfer very well to a telehealth setting. As the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, more people than ever are turning to teletherapy.

All we’re suggesting is that you consider what mental health services have to offer. If you’re pursuing a PhD, you already believe in the value of professional expertise.

Give mental health professionals a fair shot.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we sincerely hope that this article has done something to help you with PhD stress management.

It’s a difficult topic to talk about. But just by talking about your depression/anxiety, you’ll take the essential first step towards normalizing it and being open about it.

Remember, managing depression and reducing stress is a long-term project in and of itself. Do a little bit every day. Keep at it. Seek help whenever needed.

Looking for more mental health advice? Please check out our full blog section on self-care in academia and beyond.

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