Stress is to university as rain is to Vancouver: it’s a part of the experience.
It gets a little more complicated when you think about how you react to stress. The very idea of stress is stressful, but it’s our attitude that can shape how it affects us.
As a graduate student, I’ve experienced many stressful situations, both in the classroom and in the workplace. In fact, I am going through a period of high stress right now.
As I write this, my mind is racing with thoughts of impending deadlines, astronomical word counts, an unbearable workload, and more. Part of me wants to crumble under all of the pressure.
Luckily, I have strategies for managing my stress. It doesn’t mean I’m stress-free, but I can share some lessons that have helped me change my relationship to stress when it rears its head.
Our outlook on stress...is it stressing us out?
You can change the way you view stress. Stress itself is neutral. But, if you have a stressed-out reaction to it, that becomes a problem.
By shifting how you think about stress and recognizing how it can be helpful, you can change your emotional and physical reaction to it. Check out this TED Talk to see what I’m talking about.
Positive and negative stress
One of the most stressful times of my university career was when I had to complete a 30-page paper. I spent a lot of time on research (too much, some might say) and my deadline was looming.
As it got closer, the very thought of writing paralyzed me, and I just couldn’t seem to get started. Stress stopped me in my tracks...this was the negative side of stress.
But stress can actually be a positive force, driving us to do our best and sharpening our focus. Positive stress can be a motivator, and can actually cause you to work harder to achieve your goals. Sometimes the biggest successes come from being under pressure.
Dealing with stress when it arises (which it will)
You can’t always predict stress, but you can prepare yourself for when it happens. Feeling confident in your ability to manage stress will help you put your “stress energy” to better use. Here are some ways to manage stress, to help you feel like things are under control.
Start small and work your way up
Just like with working out or weight training, each small success can help you gain confidence and teach you the mindset to conquer even the most daunting tasks.
If you complete a few easy items from your to-do list first (without getting distracted by them), you’ll soon feel clearer-headed and more confident in your abilities.
Focus on one thing at a time
Part of feeling stressed is being overwhelmed...it’s really common. Even if you’ve got 5 different midterms to study for or 4 long papers to write, set aside time to work on each specific project or assignment separately, and make sure that you’re 100% focused on that task.
Something that helps me is scheduling study slots in my calendar so I can see how much time I have to devote to each assignment. That way, I don’t have to think about 4 things at once if I’ve allocated time to work on each one later.
Take mindful or meditative breaks
When you step away from your work to do something routine, like get water, go for a walk, or brush your teeth, your subconscious brain is secretly still working away to try and solve problems for you. That’s why some of our most creative thoughts happen in the shower, or when we feel like we’re not even thinking about anything at all.
You can take advantage of this by making a point to step away from your work regularly. Here are some ways to do that:
Take a break with something that fuels your soul
We all need an escape valve to blow off steam. Mine is playing guitar. Any time I am stuck on an assignment, or am feeling the increased heart rate and sweaty brow associated with stress, I pick up my guitar and strum a few tunes.
There are plenty of relaxation techniques that can help to calm you down and boost your mood. Try a variety of techniques — like yoga, breathing exercises, meditation and visualization — to see what works for you, and try to do something like this everyday.
Reach out to friends and family
I’ve found that simply talking about what’s stressing me out with friends or family members can help reduce my stress and make me feel calmer. But, for some, this can make things feel more stressful.
Either way, friends or family members can be great to bounce ideas off of or help you take a quick 5-minute break when you’re feeling stuck.
Get some advice and practice new skills
There are great resources at UBC to help you develop healthier (less stressful) work habits. Graduate students can find 1-on-1 thesis help from peers and librarians at the UBC Library Research Commons. Undergrads have access to super knowledgeable peers and great online study tips through the UBC Learning Commons.
You can do it
Stress is a normal part of life and it can feel quite overwhelming especially when you’re in the middle of it. Just remember: by changing your approach to stress, you can learn how to manage it and use it as a driving force to boost your productivity and success.