Stress and anxiety are common concerns for many graduate students. You may or may not be surprised to know that anxiety and depression are more common with graduate students than the general population, with some reports finding they occur at 6 times higher rates. It is important to recognize when stress and anxiety is affecting your life and how to manage their effects.
What are stress and anxiety?
Many people use the words stress, worry and anxiety interchangeably. We define these as uncomfortable and often distressing states of increased worry. Most people with stress and anxiety are distressed by this state but it may not affect their daily functions like their ability to work, meeting deadlines, the ability to think/concentrate, avoiding isolation, etc. When anxiety and stress affect function, we may consider this to be an anxiety disorder.
Recognizing Stress and Anxiety
Graduate school is difficult – that’s hard to deny. Your research project can often be open-ended with no guarantee to work, the outcome of which is sometimes clouded with uncertainty. At the same time, you also have to manage deadlines, pressures from faculty and your supervisor as well as academic requirements such as courses. Graduate school can also be a time in life when we are focused on the questions of long-term career goals and finding a job. That is a lot to deal with and it can be normal to experience stress and anxiety. It is always a good idea to speak to your doctor about your concerns and we should always encourage our peers to seek help.
Tangible Tips for Managing Stress and Anxiety
There are many strategies to manage stress and anxiety so it would be difficult to cover all of them. I have highlighted some common strategies, which are often a good starting point for many.
- Work-life balance. Remember that taking time for yourself from time to time is key to a balanced life. A lot of students find it helpful to engage in extracurriculars, some prefer to spend time with friends and family and others prefer to relax. Whatever your preference, always remember to take some time for yourself. If you find it hard to find time, scheduling free time in your calendar is a great reminder. Lastly, take breaks during a long busy day! Remember, a good work-life balance will reduce stress, make you happier and even increase your productivity.
- Sleep is important. Sleep is a must! Poor sleep makes stress worse, worsens your ability to focus and retain information and can impact your physical health. Sleep is so important in managing stress that I wanted to highlight it in its own section. Most people need anywhere between 6-8 hours of sleep. It can be quite difficult to maintain good sleep hygiene but here are a few tips:
- Minimize screen time. Charge your phone somewhere away from your bed, leave your iPad in an adjacent room, don’t have a TV in the bedroom. Screen time can be stimulating, which delays the time to sleep - we all at some point get stuck in the YouTube rabbit hole.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Waking up and going to bed at the same time will force your body to stick to a routine that will increase the efficiency of your sleep.
- Low light, low noise environment. It is much easier for most of us, but not all, to fall asleep in a dark room that is quiet and comfortable.
- Avoid working, reading, and exercise prior to going to bed. All of these activities increase your level of stimulation and make a routine where your brain is trained to think about work while you are in bed, rather than sleep.
- Avoid alcohol and other recreational drugs. Even though alcohol can make people sedated, your quality of sleep is significantly worsened by alcohol. This is part of the reason, but not the entire reason, why we can feel so tired the next day after drinking.
- For some people, their sleep hygiene is optimized but sleep is still an issue. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques have been used to combat insomnia for some time and simple apps have been developed for managing insomnia (see Useful Resource section).
- Diet and Exercise. I think most of us aren’t surprised that diet and exercise are helpful in managing stress and anxiety. It isn’t just the key to good physical health but also good mental health. A balanced diet. consisting of moderate quantities of foods rich in fruits and vegetables is key. Exercise reduces stress and increases endorphins. Further, exercise also improves sleep, so you get many benefits! An exercise routine can be hard to keep up but take advantage of your school gym, classes and sports clubs!
- Mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness and meditation have been around for centuries but have only been studied in the last few decades. Both meditation and mindfulness (a mental state that focuses on the present moment) have gained popularity in the medical field for one reason: they work. There are hundreds of studies showing the effects of mindfulness and meditation on stress. The key is consistency. If you would like to learn more or would like to try it out, see the app suggestions in the Useful Resources section – they present guided exercises for meditation and mindfulness.
- CBT. Also known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is a type of therapy with techniques that have been developed to combat depression and anxiety. It mostly focuses on trying to alter behaviour and thoughts as a way to impact mood. There are apps, books and links available if you want to try or learn more about CBT. Most schools also offer CBT through their health services and, if not, your doctor can help you find a therapist that is right for you.
- Talk to your doctor! It is also important to remember that if anxiety is affecting your daily function, occupies a lot of your time, bothers you or even if you have questions and want to talk to someone about, I encourage you to connect with your doctor. Some students sometimes think about self-harming, suicide, harming others, or neglecting their care, so it is important to talk to your doctor about what’s on your mind. You are not alone in this and many of your colleagues may be suffering through the same issues. Schools often have health care professionals and counsellors so take advantage of these resources at any time!
All of the information in this article is cited from the resources below so I encourage anyone that wants to find more information or to learn more about a particular topic to look below.
I can’t stress enough that your doctor is an important resource for you, whether anxiety is affecting your life, you are worried about your safety or just have questions. Most universities have health professionals and counsellors that students can access.
- “Mind Over Mood, Second Edition: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky
- "The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD
- “The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points” by Alice Boyes, PhD
- Mood Disorders Society of Canada: https://mdsc.ca/
- Ontario university, Mental Health: https://ontariosuniversities.ca/issues-priorities/student-supports
- Anxiety Canada: https://anxietycanada.com/
- WHO mental health resources: https://www.who.int/mental_health/en/
- CBT-i coach – for insomnia, available for Android and Apple
- Mindshift – meditation/CBT techniques, available for Android and Apple
- Calm – sleep/meditation app, available for Android and Apple
- Insight Timer – free meditation app, available for Android and Apple
Review articles for more information
- T. M. Evans, L. Bira, J. B. Gastelum, L. T. Weiss, and N. L. Vanderford, “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education,” Nat. Biotechnol., vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 282–284, Mar. 2018.
- Worley, Susan L. 2018. “The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep: The Detrimental Effects of Inadequate Sleep on Health and Public Safety Drive an Explosion of Sleep Research.” P & T: A Peer-Reviewed Journal for Formulary Management 43 (12): 758–63.
- Carpenter, Joseph K., Leigh A. Andrews, Sara M. Witcraft, Mark B. Powers, Jasper A. J. Smits, and Stefan G. Hofmann. 2018. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety and Related Disorders: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trials.” Depression and Anxiety 35 (6): 502–14.