Just like with time-management, the word stress-management might be a bit misleading. All stress isn’t bad and the idea is not to remove stress completely from one’s life. The idea is to learn not to give stress control of your body and mind, and to accept that some amounts of stress are a part of life. So instead of managing stress, we should be managing our own thoughts, reactions, and behavior in response to a stressful situation.
What is stress?
Stress is a part of our every day vocabulary. When we talk about stress, we talk about the causes of stress (or ‘stressors’), the consequences of stress in our minds or in our bodies, and the experiences we all have regarding stress.
But what is stress actually?
There is no such thing as stress without us perceiving it. Stress is caused in the interplay between the individual and the environment (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). It is the combination of factors in the environment that you interpret as stressful, and which then cause symptoms in your body. The severity and repercussions of these symptoms depend on what your coping mechanisms are.
What are the symptoms of stress?
When an individual is faced with a challenging, or stressful, situation, it heightens their level of arousal. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises and your muscle tension increases. Stress activates your autonomous nervous system, because it helps you mobilize your resources and focus your attention.
If you are not able to defuse the situation and return your autonomous nervous system back to its normal state, stress will start to pick away on your brain and on your body.
Many people feel the activation caused by stress in their bodies. Symptoms can be digestive problems, nausea, and head aches. Prolonged stress also causes problems concentrating, memory problems, and difficulties in decision-making and planning. Managing stress – that is, managing our reactions to it and making sure the environment is supportive – is therefore crucial for ensuring a happy, healthy and productive workforce.
What causes stress?
As I wrote earlier, stress is caused by the interplay of the environment and the individual. According to research, the demands of the environment are often not alone enough to cause prolonged stress. The demands turn into stressors if the individual does not perceive having the resources to handle them.
Demands a doctoral student might face are supervisor issues, deadlines, unclear expectations, toxic work culture (publish or perish mentality & 24/7 work), workload (teaching, supervising, researching + one million other things), and hindrance stressors (bureaucracy, red tape).
Resources that could help the doctoral student cope are social support, supervisor support, esteem, autonomy, control over work hours, and a meaningful dissertation topic.
If the demands and resources are not in sync, it might lead to stress and ultimately, if prolonged, to burnout.
But, as I stated earlier, without interpretation, there is no stress. That explains why some people don’t get rattled by the academic culture or by poor supervision.
What can you do to manage stress?
When stress takes over everything in your life, it’s time to stop and re-evaluate the situation.
- Don’t get angry at yourself. Be self-compassionate and assertive. You can handle this, you are strong, and it’s not your fault.
- Make a plan of action. What is causing the stress? What should change for the situation to get better?
- Focus on recovery and rest. Stress puts a large toll on your body. You need to rest. When you have the strength, start to exercise. (Also check out my tips on recovery here)
- Focus on what you can control. Can you tune your job? Can you influence the demands and workload? Can you change the way you think about your work? Can you talk to your supervisor about these issues?
- Think about your goals and your motives. Search for what gives your work meaning. Why did you choose to do a PhD?
- Try out some time-management tools. Set rules for overworking and work hours. Learn to say no.
- Share your thoughts with others. Changes are, your peers are in the same situation and you can support each other.
Seek professional help if the stress causes physical symptoms (heart palpitations, digestive issues), interferes with your sleep, or affects your mental health.
Lazarus, R. & Folkman, S. (1984) Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer Publishing Company.
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