Stress & Self-Care in Academia

Realize that you are your most important responsibility

As a PhD student, you have so many important responsibilities on your plate. You have coursework, you are TAing a class, you have hundreds of pages of reading each week, you have research projects to manage, and you are writing a dissertation. Who has time for anything else?

Not to mention the fact that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic where many grad students might find themselves facing additional health, family, and financial concerns.

In order to deal with the large amount of stress you encounter in graduate school, you need to take care of yourself. Did you know that this is your most important responsibility?You won’t be able to take care of your responsibilities if you don’t take care of yourself.

In the long run, investing time in self-care and establishing healthy habits and coping strategies will help you get through graduate school and into the workforce ready to meet any challenge.

Identify your stressors and your negative coping mechanisms

Before addressing positive coping strategies, let’s talk about how you are dealing with stress right now.

Are you cramming for your comprehensive exams? Trying to stay on top of your dissertation? Trying to get along with your thesis supervisor? Juggling TA and research responsibilities? Struggling to make ends meet on your graduate student stipend? Worrying about the academic job market?

These are important stressors and you may have a number of them in your life right now. Some stressors aren’t necessarily bad. For example, vigorous exercising and changing diets can be stressful for your body.

Stress is cumulative and the more stressors you have in your life, the harder it is to handle everything. You can’t focus, study, and write well when you have too many things on your mind or when your body feels worn out.

Think about how you are currently reacting to the stress in your life. What do you do when things get overwhelming?

Are you avoiding work (e.g. procrastinating? sleeping all day?) or avoiding people (e.g. your advisor’s emails)? Shopping compulsively? Smoking? Overeating or not eating enough? Drinking too much (e.g. coffee, alcohol)? Not exercising? Feeling exhausted? Feeling burnt out? Numbing yourself with media (e.g. Netflix)? Engaging in harmful or dangerous behavior?

Negative coping mechanisms might feel good in the moment, but they could be self-damaging in the long run.

What would you want to change in your behavior?

Confront your fears

Looking at the list of stressors you identified earlier, what is your biggest fear? Perhaps you are afraid you won’t find a fulfilling job or you fear failing your comprehensive exams. Recognizing the fears that haunt you is the first step towards confronting them.

Figure out what you can control in your current situation. What resources do you have to face the challenge? If you need help, for instance, to study for your comprehensive exams, then reach out to graduate students who have passed the exam before you. If you are afraid of the looming academic job search, then talk to your advisor, or find a community of support.

Talking with others who have faced the same fears and overcome the challenge can help you put things into perspective.

Exercise in moderation

Are you currently exercising? If so, how frequently and for how long?

Regular exercise is an effective stress reliever, so pick an activity that you enjoy, whether it’s walking, hiking, running, dancing, cycling, weightlifting, or swimming.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (e.g. swimming, walking briskly) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (e.g. running) a week, as a minimum for healthy adults. You should also do some strength training at least a couple of times a week.

Carve out time in your day for your workout by scheduling it in your calendar. Ask a friend to tag along if that can help you stay accountable to your exercise routine.

Eat healthily

How are you eating? If you are subsisting on Ramen noodles, seminar bagels, and chocolate from the vending machine, you might need to modify your diet to feel better.

Graduate student stipends make eating a healthy diet more challenging. Making healthy choices while sticking to your budget will take some planning.

Eating out is an expensive habit for PhD students. If you can cook at home to prepare your meals, you can easily save hundreds of dollars a month while being mindful of your health.

If you can, buy the food you eat regularly in bulk. If you don’t have a membership, you can ask someone who does if they would be willing to go to a big bulk store with you. They may even want to split the purchases with you if you eat similar things.

Look for ingredients that are in season. If you eat a lot of vegetables and fruits (and you should!) look into purchasing a community supported agriculture share at a local farm. Some of the produce boxes include new recipes to try. See if your city has a farmer’s market and food co-ops that have cheaper prices than regular supermarkets.

Have a consistent sleep schedule

How is your sleep schedule?

If you have an activity tracker watch, examine your sleeping patterns. How much rest is your body actually getting?

Getting enough sleep on a regular basis can be really challenging when you’re completing your PhD. You might be sacrificing sleep to get your seminar papers done on time, or to finish grading those rhetoric papers for the class you teach.

To protect your well-being and health, you need at least 7 to 8 hours every night, but don’t despair if you’re not quite there yet.

To improve your sleep habits, try to go to bed at the same time each day, even on weekends. You can set a timer on your smartphone alarm clock that signals your bedtime to help you establish this habit. Schedule enough time for you to unwind before turning off the lights.

Pay attention to your sleep hygiene. Avoid working on your laptop or reading for classes in bed.

Manage your time efficiently

Your PhD is a marathon and you need to manage your resources (i.e. time and energy) by breaking up large tasks into manageable pieces, and allotting enough time to complete each task.

Find a scheduling method that works for you, whether it’s Google Calendar or a bullet journal. Write down the urgent and important things you need to accomplish on a weekly basis and decide when you will dedicate time to each task so that you aren’t neglecting anything.

Remember that exercising and cooking are important, as is making time to take care of your other personal needs (e.g. medical visits, haircut, time to socialize). Schedule those in too!

Schedule time for hobbies and for fun

When you are studying and working a lot, you need time to do something fun to relax. If you are a workaholic, then it’s essential that you schedule an enjoyable activity! Having an event to look forward to will help fight feelings of depression and isolation that sometimes occur in graduate school.

What is it that you enjoy doing and that energizes you? Make time for those leisurely activities to restore a healthy balance and find the enjoyment of life that you lost along the way.

Did you have hobbies or interests before you started your PhD? When was the last time you read for fun? Did you plan an instrument? Did you enjoy making crafts?

What new activity would you like to try?

Establishing a professional network can be fun! Make time for friendships and camaraderie with PhD students in your cohort. The professional relationships and friendships that you build with other graduate students from your university are important and will continue to be important as you begin your post-PhD career.

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