Managing Stress

“Stress is normal in grad school.”

How many of us have heard some version of this claim? How many of us kinda-sorta believe it?

It’s absolutely true that grad school is challenging – you’re frequently operating at the growing edge of your skills and knowledge to produce new ideas and discoveries. Exciting! But that doesn’t mean accepting or normalizing a state of constant, damaging stress. We as an institution need to be working to reduce and prevent unnecessary stress. Simultaneously, grad students can learn and use strategies to understand and manage the stress they encounter throughout their degrees.

One useful resource is the Stress & Self Care Module within the Wellness Centre: Online. This module gives an overview of the stress response and how it relates to academic performance, introduces UBC resources to support health & wellbeing, and suggests coping strategies to manage stress and build resilience. For instance:

1. Reframe stress

Think: “My body and brain are getting me ready to face this challenge. I am getting ready for an important task.”

2. Identify the source of your stress response

What’s causing you to feel stressed? Is there a layer of interpretation (i.e., thoughts) that’s adding to your stress, on top of the circumstance itself?

3. Make a plan

When I volunteered on a Distress Line, we used to use the acronym “PIE”: Priors, Internals, Externals. That is, what has helped you cope with stressful circumstances in the past? (Priors). What internal resources, like values, beliefs, or strengths, can you draw on? (Internals). Who or what else can help support you, or be a source of laughter and stress relief? (Externals). Brainstorm different ways you can approach the difficult situation; discuss with friends and family and ask for help, if needed.

4. Apply your solutions to the problem.

Taking action – whether or not it’s 100% effective – can be one of the best responses to stress. In counselling, we say “action begets action”: whatever the outcome, it can get you unstuck and open up new perspectives and options that you couldn’t see or access before.

5. Make Time to Unwind

You likely already do things that help you to unwind and relax. Here are some additional ideas to try:

  • Create art or write – draw, journal, write poetry or a compassionate letter to yourself.
  • Curl up on a couch with a book.
  • Enjoy a hot beverage with a friend or family member online.
  • Listen to comforting music.
  • Spend time with your favourite scholars or topics.
  • Remind yourself of your strengths. “I’m good at…”
  • Garden – grow something, bring flowers into your room.
  • Humour – read a funny book, watch a comedy.
  • Muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Find a quiet, safe space.

6. Stay Connected

  • Call friends or family when you need to talk.
  • Build a support network – contact old friends, reach out to your peers.
  • Connect with individuals with similar experiences and interests online.
  • Find ways to give back (if you can).

(adapted from the Stress & Self Care Module, Wellness Centre: Online)

These tips may seem simple, even obvious. But how often do we honestly pause and reflect on how/whether we’re doing these things? When it comes to stress management, it can be worth going back to basics.

You can also join UBC Mental Health Nurses for weekly Mental Health Moments, a discussion series about different mental health and well-being topics. All students are welcome. Register here – the next session is April 8th from 11:00-11:45am, on self-compassion and mental health.