Oct 5, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Stress and anxiety are not new phenomena for students. However, according to a recent article published in the academic journal Nature Biotechnology, there is evidence of a “mental health crisis in graduate education." The good news? There are also some things students can do to survive  (and thrive!) as graduate students. Read on for a roundup of five anxiety-busting tips.

1. Know the symptoms.

Occasional bouts of anxiety are part of student life with common signs and symptoms including the following: feeling nervous, restless or tense; having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom; an increased heart rate; rapid breathing; sweating; trembling; feeling tired or weak; difficulty concentrating and/or thinking only about the present worry; difficulty sleeping; GI problems; difficulty controlling worry; and having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety.

Advises the Mayo Clinic, “Your worries may not go away on their own, and they may get worse over time if you don't seek help. See your doctor or a mental health provider before your anxiety gets worse. It's easier to treat if you get help early.”

2. Be ready for it.

Graduate school may be extremely worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean it’s a non-stop party. After all, there's a reason why depression and anxiety are more prevalent among grad students.

Derek Lowe suggests in a Science Translational Medicine blog entry on his own experiences with anxiety during graduate school, “I think it’s important for graduate students to realize that everyone has these doubts and bad stretches. Everyone has these moments when they wonder what they have done to their lives, but having these thoughts is not a sign that the exact failure you’re fearing has arrived.”

Acknowledging the reality of anxiety can also help you adjust your mindset. “Any meaningful graduate degree is going to be a test of your abilities and your resilience. Recognize this, and avoid the two extremes. On one end are the macho types whose response is ‘Eat stress for breakfast! That’s what I did in my day! If you don’t have the fire in your belly you don’t belong here!’. And on the other end are the voices, some perhaps external and some internal, telling you that you’re a failure already, an imposter, and that you’re never going to measure up anyway. These are two different sets of lies, and everyone has to steer their course between them,” continues Lowe.

3. Let yourself off the hook.

Grad students have a lot of commitments and expectations. But not all of these are mandatory, and attempting to squeeze them all in can definitely lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. You also have an obligation to take care of yourself, and sometimes that means skipping an activity or event for no other reason than self-preservation.

One way to keep things in perspective while prioritizing? Weigh whether the benefits of skipping something outweigh the consequences of missing it.

4. Reconnect with your motivations.

Few people go to graduate school just for the heck of it. Rather, most graduate students are driven by the desire to know more about their areas of study. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of this when you are slogging through a particularly tedious time. This is why it is important to routinely check in with the reasons that led you to graduate school.

In a commentary piece, Ardon Shorr reflects on the important role belonging to a workshop group called Public Communication for Researchers played in keeping him engaged and mentally strong while in graduate school.

“Science communication was my antidote because it reconnected me to motivation. The first thing we practiced was how to talk passionately about why we love research, what inspired us, what problem we’re obsessed with. The practicalities of biology sometimes look like drudgery, moving around a thousand drops of clear liquid. Seeing the big picture infused my day with magic: I was working on unsolved problems!” he writes.

5. Have a plan.

Time management isn’t just about maximizing productivity. If done well, it’s also about minimizing stress and anxiety. Making to-do lists, keeping a calendar, getting organized, and prioritizing tasks are all helpful time management tasks. Not all time management methods work for everyone. If you haven’t yet found one that works for you, check out US News & World Report’s article on “4 Tried-and-True Time Management Techniques.”

One last thing to keep in mind? Stress doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it isn’t always bad. In fact, it can help you stay on your game. By proactively identifying your stress and its triggers, you can deploy action-oriented strategies to transform anxiety into outcomes.

Are you a graduate student with stress management tips to pass along? If so, please share them in the comments section below.


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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