Graduate Student Stress Management

Graduate Student Stress Management. Presented by Dave Logan and Dr. Aziz Nashef Today we’ll talk about definitions, common issues obstacles to seeking helps, coping methods and a summary and resources that are available for you. What is stress? Stress can be defined as any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes. Some stress is motivational to help get through situations of exams and deadlines. An extreme amount of stress can be psychologically and physically debilitating. For example, feeling overwhelmed anxious, or having difficulty breathing or sleeping. Your autonomic nervous system can be divided into two areas. Your sympathetic nervous system or your parasympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system will increase your heart rate and constrict blood vessels, it prepares the body for actions. It’s a red alert status, feeling of flight or fight. Your parasympathetic nervous system will slow your heart rate and will dilate your blood vessels. It conserves energy and it takes nourishment to vital organs. When under stress, the sympathetic system predominates. Your energy is focused on taking action and not on taking nourishment to vital organs. Signs and Symptoms – On your body, your mood, and behaviours. Things that you might notice or things that others might notice. You may notice muscle tension or pain. Excessive fatigue, sleep problems. Feeling overwhelmed. Anxiety. Sadness or depression. Irritability or anger. Or a sudden disinterest or absence from studies. Or a disinterest in exercise. Others may notice restlessness. A deterioration in physical appearance. You just don’t look yourself. An unusual inability to make eye contact. Sudden social withdrawal from peers. or Friends. Drug or alcohol overuse. There are four types of stress. One time not repeating. Something like a class presentation that you might feel anxious about. One event triggering a cascade. A move or a divorce or a major life event. Chronic intermittent – You might have insufficient funds for tuition or difficulty finding a job. Chronic, continual – Your thesis research without clear supervisory directions. An important area to pay attention to in regards to your wellness, is your circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythm follows the sun. In the morning from 8 am to 12 pm your rhythm is high and you are typically more alert. From 12pm to 4pm it is at a medium level. And from 4 pm to 6pm it is very low, it is your lowest waking time of the day. 6 pm. to 10 pm its medium and after 10pm your body suggests that it should be resting. If you review the sleep histogram, this shows the different hours of REM sleep based over an 8 hour period. It is important to consider that going to sleep before midnight is an important strategy in having a restful night’s sleep. Your circadian rhythm would suggest that you are asleep well before midnight. If you consider the small amounts of REM sleep that you get, Rapid Eye Movement sleep. You only get one hour in the first six hours of sleep. The 6th to 7th hour is a full hour of REM sleep and the 7th to 8th hour is another full hour of REM sleep This is where the magic happens where all of your information is processed from the day before. Your coping strategies are reinforced and your ability to focus and concentrate for the day ahead happens. Most importantly, sleep well on a consistent basis arising at a consistent time in the mornings and trying to go to bed at a regular time at night. An important area to consider is seasonal affective disorder or SADS. SADS is a form of depression that can usually occur in the late fall or winter months when there is reduced sunlight and often a reduction in physical activity. For more detailed information including strategies to manage symptoms, please review the additional resources. on this page, for example the article, Fight back against SADness this winter. We are going to shift focus and talk about common issues that Graduate Students face. One area of particular importance to pay attention to is your relationship with your supervisors. Or Advisors. Different advisors or supervisors may have different expectations of their students. It is also important to pay attention to working styles, as some supervisors may be very involved with your research, while others may not be involved at all. Or very minimally. Since we know that differences can and do exists it would be important to check your own expectations prior to engaging with graduate work with supervisors to ensure that what you are expecting matches what supervisors can provide. Also in relatioships with supervisors or advisors. It is important to set clear expectations, as we just spoke about. It is also important to advocate for yourself. This can be an area that produces lots of anxiety for students. But doing so can only help the situation It is also important to realize that you are still a student And although you are in graduate school, it is really important to ask for help if you need it. Asking for help is a sign of personal growth and maturity. It is okay if you do not have all the answers. Significant levels of stress is another key theme we see among graduate students. The stress level of graduate studies can sometimes add to previously existing issues, compounding the stress. We also know that there can be even more added stress around key academic dates such as presentations, publications, or submitting your thesis. So, what can we do to problem-solve these high levels of stress? One thing that we can do, is what’s called practicing self-care skills. For example, sleeping, eating at regular intervals, and physical activity are very important. Even a small amount of activity like taking the stairs instead of the elevator can make a big difference in the long run. Engaging in practicing meditation or mindfulness are two other ways of problem solving stress. If this is a new area to you but you are interested in learning more about meditation or mindfulness there are many different online apps that are available. Also, for more information you can consult our Counselling Services website for more resources. We also have counselling seminars available. These Coping Skills series are available in person or online at Counselling Services on campus. I would also add that it’s important to practice what we have talked about both in times of stress and at other times in your life. It is important to do this because when we do have stressful times in our life if we’ve been practicing some of these skills consistently, they will be more easily available to draw upon You’ve probably heard of the term work-life balance In graduate school it can be very challenging to balance all of the priorities in school and in life. You may be in conflict about your life-goals versus your career goals. Also you family may have different expecations for you. What’s very important in terms work-life balance is to keep the channels of communication open. Channels of communication between yourself and your and your partner. Between yourself and your advisor. And between yourself and your family. I would also add, keeping channels of communication open with other people in your life who you feel are there for social support. Or you can rely on. It is also important to set aside time for yourself to recharge. Often students feel as though if they increase the amount of hours they put towards their work their productivity levels will therefore increase. This is not always the case. Setting a bit of time aside to recharge can really help improve concentration and focus. Another theme that we see common among graduate students is that of isolation and competition. The graduate student working environment can be prone to feeling isolated Competition between students in similar fields may also lead to further isolation. It is also difficult in graduate school because often time we do not have the same structure as what was once afforded to us in undergraduate school. Therefore it can be very difficult to feel that you have a good rhythm and consistency in how you approach your day. A few thing that you might consider to help combat isolation and competition are to think about joining your graduate student society Also networking at events such as conferences can help you feel less alone and increase your social support. Sometimes students will say that they feel it is difficult for them to network or to reach out to others. In that case, it would be important to draw upon some of the other coping skills that we’ve talked about previously. Obstacles to seeking supports. Many times grad students feel that it is difficult for them to seek out support. Students frequently do not want supervisors, administrators, or mentors to know that they have difficulties and need to obtain help. A stiff-upper-lip attitude in academia, prompts who struggle with mental health problems to keep them hidden and accept depression as normal. “Its just the way it is.” Grad students do not want to run into undergraduate students who they might teach or facilitate labs for at Counselling Services Students may be concerned that acknowledgement of mental health concerns may place their careers at risk. “I don’t want others to know what’s wrong with me”. Students are also aware of the power differential between themselves and faculty members and may be fearful to discuss issues between themselves and faculty members openly with others. There is also a sense of imposter syndrome. Graduate students may suffer from this syndrome. For example, I thought as if I’d gotten this far in my academic career by fluke or chance and that the top grades that I received in my undergraduate and master’s studies had been administrative mistakes. This fed into my anxiety as well as my depression.” “It’s very common to feel an incompetent fraud, and usually to assume you’re the only one who feels this way.” Other obstacles might include Graduate students can be unwilling to access mental health services for fear of personal funding or career reprisals. They report to academic and administrative individuals that might be contributing to their stress. “I can’t tell others then”. And they may not know who to turn to. We will now turn to coping methods you can use. It is very important to remember that you are not alone. If you are struggling, it is crucial to think about seeking professional help, even if you believe your situation is temporary. Be aware of what is good for your physical and emotional health and try to take control. Find out the optimal workload and realistic pace to keep in order to complete your work in a timely manner and help decrease burnout. I would also add that althought you may feel in competition with other graduate students, or may feel you are comparing yourself with others. It can be very difficult, however it is very important to try to compare yourself with yourself and continue to strive to improve yourself Also creating an effective strategy to help monitor and manage stress is also important. We touched on this before but practicing self-care is one coping mechanism that can help with the stress of graduate school. And with the stress in life in general. Keeping a regular sleeping patter or doing your best to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day can be very difficult but having a consistent sleep schedule is very important. Eating healthy meals at regular intervals and consistent physical activity. Maintaining and developing your support network, which can include creating a peer support and monitoring group, as well as maintaining your social life and continuing to pursue your interests outside of of your studies are all things that will contribute to you having a good graduate school experience. This last part about pursuing outside interests apart from your studies is very important. It is extremely easy to get consumed by grad school. Having outside interests and continuing to maintain social support can only help further your produtivity. It can be very difficult to cope with stressful situations in general. But what about when they are happening in the moment. As an example, you may feel like you are being bullied. Practicing to learn to establish physiological control when you are in a less stressful state can be very important. For example, you can use slow deep breaths to help you regain control. We can also take a time out if possible until you regain emotional control. What this looks like is putting a space between what is stressing you out and how you are going to react emotionally to it. Giving yourself adequate time will help reduce the emotional intensity of your response. Another thing that you can do is to consult with your peers. Again the important of social support is emphasized here. Further, there is also something that is called taking the opposite action. For example, you may feel that because of your distress you want to isolate yourself and not reach out friends or others who may be supportive. What taking the opposite action would entail would be, even if you’re feeling a certain way. Doing the opposite of how you are feeling. So in this case it would be reaching out to others, maybe through email or text, or even a phone call, even though you don’t feel up to it. In time when we start to do things opposite to how we feel, we can gain mastery over the situation this does not mean that we are not recognizing how we are feeling. We’re just saying to ourself, “you know what even though I feel this way, there are still things I can do to manage the situation.” There’s stress in the moment, but there is also chronic continual stress. So what can be done with this situation. We can look to problem-solving. We can ask ourselves, for example, what are the facts in the situation? What is the story I am telling myself about these facts? Where is my responsibility in all of this? Another thing that we can do is accept the reality of the situation. These types of events can be extremely distressful. If we are not willing to accept the reality of the situation, we can create more suffering for ourselves. Another thing that we can do is we can take action. We can devise a plan by ourselves with a counsellor, or with friends, to try to deal with or manage continuous stress that we have. Thank you for viewing today’s seminar please contact Counselling Services for further information If you feel like your situation or concern is urgent please contact our office at ext. 32655 Or any of the helpline resources such as Good2Talk or Here 24/7. We wish you the very best in your graduate studies.

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