Stress is bad—isn’t it? Not always. Sometimes stress can motivate us to do productive things, such as getting those scholarship applications taken care of. Other times it affects us in a negative way, causing distress.
Graduate school students are highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress. After all, grad school involves meeting new people, juggling responsibilities, making deadlines, and constantly pushing yourself to do your best academically. A 2018 study by the American College Health Association found that 48% of graduate students experienced above-average stress, and 14.5% reported experiencing tremendous stress (and this was before the COVID pandemic). Once COVID hit, grad students (like the rest of us) also were dealing with limited access to friends and loved ones, adjusting to remote learning, and general uncertainty about what was to come and when the pandemic would end.
Stress falls into two general categories: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress feels all-consuming in the moment; chronic stress involves managing elevated feelings of stress over a prolonged period. Each type of stress carries different challenges. This guide is loaded with tips, strategies, and tools for managing the stress of graduate studies and life.
What Are the Most Common Stressors in Graduate School?
While each student’s graduate school experience is unique, certain stressors are prevalent. Academic performance, finances, relationships, work, family, and your health all are affected by your time as a graduate student. Knowing that can help you mentally prepare for how to manage these stressors.
Academics are your raison d’être, after all. The demands to produce excellent scholarly articles, get top grades on exams or assignments, and keep up with challenging content can be enormously stressful. If you’re in a highly competitive program or attending grad school on a scholarship, you could be even more vulnerable to academic stress. Some highly qualified and competent students experience impostor syndrome and begin feeling like they’re not good enough, which further undermines their success.
Finances or Debt
When it comes to financing a graduate education, each student’s circumstances are different. Some receive funding from their program or department, others get financial support from family, and many rely on student loans or scholarships. The pressure of accumulating debt while you study—plus the pressure of living on a tight budget—is the perfect recipe for maximum stress. This Scholarship Guide may be helpful in relieving some of the financial stress of grad school.
Many students pursue graduate education after being out of college for a few years, which means you may have a spouse or partner and children or you may be responsible for an older family member. These family commitments don’t get put on pause while you study, so you’re forced to balance the needs of your loved ones with your passion for your academic pursuits.
Students who work full- or part-time while pursuing graduate education are doing double-duty. If you’re not working, you’re studying. And if you’re not studying, you’re working. It can be extremely stressful to feel like you never have any down time and that your family is always taking a backseat to work and school.
Many grad students struggle with how to stay connected with their partners while focusing on their studies. Partners can feel neglected or even excluded, particularly if you build relationships with your cohort and your partner feels like an outsider.
Everything in our environment, including how we spend our time, affects our health. Whether it’s the mental stress and fatigue of cramming massive amounts of information into your brain, the consistent demand to produce papers and research, or the stress of balancing many responsibilities, the stress of grad student life can quickly lead to health challenges.
What Does Stress Look and Feel Like?
Many students struggle with recognizing the signs of stress before the stress becomes overwhelming (ever heard of panic attacks?). Understanding the stressors that affect you, and the internal and external signs that your stress level is spiking, helps you know it’s time to proactively employ coping strategies. Changes in your thoughts, emotions, body, and behaviors may be among the first manifestations of stress.
Our brain is a beautiful and powerful organ, capable of multitasking, organizing, evaluating, and planning. However, our brains don’t always send us signals that they need to reboot. You may notice that you’re having trouble concentrating, forgetting things, feeling less sharp, or are easily distracted. These changes could be signs that stress is brewing.
Our emotions clue us in to what is happening around us and can be an excellent barometer for perceiving threats, both internal and external. You may notice that you’re worrying excessively about things that don’t merit that much worry and that you can’t wind down at the end of the day. Or your emotions might swing in the other direction and you find you’re feeling down and irritable. The important thing is to listen to your emotions when they’re telling you something.
If you don’t make time for rest, your body will do it for you. Studies show that stress makes you more susceptible to colds and infections. You might also notice that your energy level is lower, your muscles are tense, you’re restless, or you sweat a lot. And that’s not all. Other physical signs of stress include headaches, changes in appetite, and insomnia.
During times of stress and dysfunction, you may be tempted to think that you’re a burden to your loved ones. You may find that you want to be alone, that time you spend with others isn’t enjoyable, and that you’re more likely to disagree or get into arguments. You may find yourself blaming others for mistakes instead of taking responsibility. Most of all, you might notice that you struggle to complete work or school tasks, leaving you feeling even worse about yourself.
How to Prevent and Manage Stress in Graduate School
The gold standard, of course, is learning to take preventative measures against stress and to manage it when it does arise during your graduate studies. Understanding and implementing these strategies can be difficult. In fact, you might find yourself thinking, “That suggestion will never work for me.” If that’s the case, push yourself to try it. If the idea offers you even a little stress relief, it’ll be worthwhile. Plus, you may discover a strategy that’s more effective for you.
Eat nutritious meals and exercise regularly
Food is your energy source and exercise keeps your body firing on all cylinders. Focus on foods that are nutrient-dense to comprise most of your diet, and make sure you include foods that you enjoy as a part of a healthy lifestyle too. Exercise can take many forms, but if nothing else, walk for 30 minutes a day either all at once or in several 10-minute bursts.
Get enough sleep
Rest is not a treat, it’s essential. If you aren’t recharging your batteries, you certainly can’t do your best work. Focus on having effective wind-down and sleep habits to improve the quality of your rest.
Create a solid daily routine that builds in time for self-care
With the chaos of school, family, and work, you may fall into a “fly by the seat of your pants” mentality. However, humans do well with routine and structure. By making your routine predictable and realistic, you’re setting yourself up to meet your essential needs and take care of yourself.
Set achievable goals
We’d all like to be that person who gleefully greets the day at 5 am, runs three miles, and cooks an Ina-Garten-worthy breakfast all before most of us hit the snooze button for the first time. As you set goals for yourself, be realistic. Can you get off the subway one stop sooner to walk to class? Can you cut your time in the kitchen and include some takeout in your meal planning? Can you find time to use free weights while listening to a Zoom lecture? Consider using the SMART technique for goal-setting; think about what’s realistic for you and start there.
Improve on or learn good organization and time-management skills
We’ve all heard the phrase “Work smarter, not harder.” Look at your habits and find areas where you have room to be more efficient or organized. Streamlining your habits goes a long way toward lightening your mental load.
Focus on what you can control
Certain things are within our circle of influence, and other things are not. Learn which elements of your life are which and use your energy for the things you can change.
Give yourself grace; remember, stress is often self-imposed
Take the lid off your internal pressure cooker. Most colleagues, advisors, and peers are understanding if you need more time, space, or capacity to complete a task. Forgive yourself for needing help, and then ask for what you need to be successful.
Make time to relax
Relaxation is an essential part of self-care. Even if watching TV or doing a hobby doesn’t feel productive, it is. Your brain needs a break, and doing things that you enjoy will provide this relaxation.
Figure out what needs to change and take action to change it
If you find yourself repeating the same series of frustrating decisions and outcomes, look under the hood and try to figure out what’s wrong with your process. These reflections tend to bring about the sustainable changes that help in numerous aspects of your life.
See the tips above for stress prevention and begin to implement them
Start small and implement one or two changes. Notice what shifts for you and let this guide you to additional changes.
Decrease activities that cause anxiety or stress
If doomscrolling, hyper fixation on the news, or spending time with unpleasant people is emptying your bucket, make changes accordingly.
Practice mindfulness techniques
Meditation, yoga, or any other relaxing activity that helps reduce stress can be helpful. Research shows us again and again that mindfulness improves functioning and reduces stress. This might feel like too simple of a solution for the mountain of stress you’re facing, and yet using a mindfulness app daily or going to a yoga class with a friend makes a difference.
Get additional help if needed
We sometimes need more help than anticipated to manage stress. Check out the resources below for ideas for how to continue your stress management journey.
How to Identify and Manage Chronic Stress
Stress about a research error or an upcoming presentation doesn’t always stay situational. If ignored, this stress can latch onto other situations and form pernicious, twisty chains of chronic stress.
All stress can exacerbate anxiety and depression, but chronic stress can do so even more quickly. Our minds and bodies are connected, so stress may begin to produce physical symptoms. If you recognize any of the following conditions arising or worsening for you, consult your doctor or mental health provider as soon as possible and check out this guide on Mental Health for Grad Students.
Anxiety and depression
Excessive worry or feelings of depression are common when our brains are on overload from chronic stress. If you’re noticing a worsening ability to handle stressful situations, feeling disconnected from friends or loved ones, or overwhelmed by worry, reach out for help.
Some people rely on emotional eating during times of stress, and others restrict their food intake to provide a sense of control. If you notice a substantial change in your eating patterns or that you’re engaging in these habits more days/nights than not, discuss the situation with your doctor or mental health provider.
If you’re struggling with chronic stress, your brain may feel constantly overloaded and respond with a tension headache. If you’re noticing frequent headaches, as you reach for the ibuprofen bottle check your stress levels as well.
Insomnia or sleep issues
Sleep can be a helpful barometer for how you’re doing. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or have restful sleep, that’s likely a sign that you’re experiencing excessive and persistent stress.
When you’re juggling too many responsibilities, exhaustion comes with the territory. If you’re noticing excessive fatigue and that sleep isn’t helping you feel rested, look to your other habits to see where you may be losing your energy.
Pain isn’t in our minds, but what’s in our minds affects our pain. If you’re noticing pain flare-ups or new symptoms as a part of a chronic illness, that’s a sign to slow down and check in with your body.
Digestive issues or ulcers
Stress absolutely affects our digestion and functioning of the GI system. If you’re noticing GI changes, check whether your eating habits have changed because of your stress. If not, get a check-up to see what’s happening.
When life feels overwhelming, we’re more susceptible to making emotion-driven choices or to look for ways to numb our stress. Substance abuse can manifest during times of chronic stress as a means of temporarily escaping the stressors. Be attentive if you notice your drinking or substance use increasing, either slowly or precipitously, and pay attention to whether you’re using substances for self-soothing.
Resources for Stress Management
The best offense is often a good defense; engaging some of the following resources for stress management can really help you defend yourself against stress. Some of the suggestions are for resources specific to you and your institution, while others can be accessed anywhere and by anyone.
Your Institution’s Student Counseling Center
These centers are home for students who are struggling with stress, adjustment to academic life, and all of life’s challenges. Most centers provide brief treatment and will act as a liaison if you would benefit from longer-term therapy.
Your Institution’s Mindfulness Institute
Many organizations and institutions have a designated mindfulness institute that offers workshops and trainings. If your institution doesn’t have one in-house, check your region to see if you can find one.
Open Mic Nights
Found around the country, look for open mic nights at comedy clubs or even on your campus to hear what local comedians have to offer. Laughter really can be the best medicine.
Check out this app for guided meditations, soothing soundscapes, and more that you can carry in your pocket.
Do Yoga With Me
Sign up for a free subscription to a huge library of streaming yoga classes. Filter your search based on class level, style, or length.
If your budget allows, Freshly sends you nutritious, chef-prepared meals on a weekly schedule (no chopping or cooking required). Check out their referral program for a generous initial discount.
Golden Retriever Puppy Cam
For when you need a moment of extreme cuteness.
If you’re a Google user, consider this app to coordinate your email, calendar, work, and more.
Consider adding a gratitude practice to your routine to help yourself stay grounded, keep things in perspective, and remain connected to yourself and your needs.
An effective, user-friendly app that helps you build mindfulness. Start small and stay consistent for best results.
Consider adding a meal planning/organizational app to your routine to streamline shopping and cooking and help support your health through nutritious foods.
MeetUp is a way to connect with people in your area who have shared interests. Are you looking for a French conversation circle? Want to go to museums with a group? Join a cookie swap? Check out Meetup for local offerings or consider starting a group of your own.
When you need to disconnect with your school, family, or job and try to connect with nature, RainyMood helps with soundscapes for sleep and study.
This app is a game changer for understanding your sleep and will change your relationship with alarm clocks.
Check out this app to organize tasks, projects, and workflows and streamline your life.
Work Out From Your Desk
Check out workout moves that you can do from your desk to relieve stress and get your body moving.
An Expert Weighs In
Fatema Jivanjee-Shakir, LMSW is a therapist, writer, and speaker. She specializes in eating disorders, trauma, depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, and working with folks of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color) identities. She has extensive experience working with adults and adolescents in individual, group, and family therapy at the residential, partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), and outpatient levels of care. Fatema is a Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center, a therapist in private practice at Conason Psychological Services, and a Board Member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals New York chapter.
Q. What are some of the most common stressors you have seen in graduate students?
A. Perfectionism, self-comparison, and imposter syndrome are three of the most common stressors I’ve observed amongst graduate students. Graduate students are often driven to build strong professional networks to increase their chances of finding a job post-graduation. This can bring up performance anxiety and questions about whether they are doing well enough in comparison to their peers.
Furthermore, finances are a major stressor, as many graduate students work while in school to pay for their living expenses, education costs, and often times, their family caregiving expenses. In fact, according to one research study, finances are the 2nd largest stressor for graduate school students.
Q. How does stress in graduate school differ from stress as an undergraduate student or being in the workforce?
A. The undergraduate life phase is often associated with the transition to independence, as well as identity and career exploration. Graduate school, on the other hand, is typically associated with more academic pressure because it is related to direct career planning goals. Additionally, graduate school stress differs from workforce stress in that it is marked with career and financial uncertainty as the individual studies with the aim of finding a post-graduate job, while being in the workforce often offers a sense of career and financial stability.
Q. What are some common pitfalls that graduate students experience when trying to manage their stress?
A. Students often turn to substance use, disordered eating, and exercise behaviors as a way to manage stress. They might feel anxious and use dieting or exercise as a way to control their anxiety. Or they might turn to binge eating as a way of seeking comfort and pleasure when feeling depressed or stressed. Self-induced vomiting may also offer a release of pent-up stress. Similarly, substances can offer a way to escape or dissociate from present stressors. Engaging in these types of coping mechanisms might appear helpful at first, but poses a long-term risk for the development of substance use and eating disorders. Recognizing stress early and reaching out early for support is key to long-term wellness.
Q. Which institutional or outside resources tend to be the most helpful for graduate students when they are struggling with stress?
A. Consider working with a therapist as part of your stress-management plan. Many academic institutions provide free or reduced-fee counseling services for students. Having a space for you to process your stress and work on developing coping strategies can better serve your mental health and long-term ability to complete graduate school while balancing your personal life.
Q. If a graduate student feels unexpectedly and suddenly overwhelmed by stress, what should their first step be?
A. Rest, don’t quit. When you’re managing the fast-paced nature of graduate school, every moment you’re not working can feel like a moment wasted. However, if you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, it’s typically a sign that you need rest. Take at least 30 minutes and do something you enjoy, whether that’s watching a TV show, calling a friend, going for a walk, or taking a nap. The rest will allow you to return to your commitments feeling more centered, which can lead to more efficiency and productivity. Ensure you build in time for self-care on an ongoing basis to prevent burnout.
Q. How can a student advocate for support if they find that their stress is affecting their studies?
A. Your academic advisor is typically the first point of contact if you are needing additional support. If you are not comfortable discussing this with your advisor, reach out to another faculty member with whom you have a trusted relationship. Discussing your needs with a therapist can also allow them to advocate for you to receive academic support. Most academic institutions have protocols in place to support students in need; it’s to your benefit to use this resource when you need it! There is no shame in this.
Q. What is the best piece of stress management advice you’ve ever received?
A. The best advice I’ve received came from a professor who said, “you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” Students are often balancing a myriad of responsibilities and commitments, and it is impossible to have the perfect school, work, personal, and financial life at any given moment. My professor supported us to continuously evaluate what our top priorities are and to recognize how those may change over time. She encouraged us to put our forces behind those priorities, while letting the rest of the areas of our life be good enough. This encouragement of acceptance and recognition that different phases of my life can bring different things I desire and aspire to have was an important realization for breaking down the “perfect life” I kept (unsuccessfully) chasing.