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Stress less during PhD

Aktualisiert: 22. Jan.

Tips for balancing stress and well-being as a PhD student


stressful life

Stress often has a rather negative connotation in our society, and this view is of course justified. After all, more and more people suffer from chronic stress, which poses a great threat to our mental and physical health. And also during the PhD we can experience a lot of stress and overload, which can put a great strain on us physically and mentally. Some may have sleep problems, others may suffer from chronic fatigue or may be constantly ill.


In addition, numerous studies point to poor mental health among PhD students (Hazell et. al. 2021, Kafedjiska et. al. 2022, Satinsky et. al. 2021). High workloads, tight deadlines, financial and career-related uncertainties are some of the contributing factors. You probably know what I'm talking about, don't you?


But is stress really as bad as its reputation?


To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at the biology of stress.


Stress is an unconscious and instinctive reaction of our body to a perceived threat or fear. What our brain perceives as a threat is based on our thoughts, beliefs, memories and past experiences. This decision is made in the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for regulating emotions, motivation and memory. It is reactively, irrationally and instinctively. After a threat has been perceived, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), the stress response, in our body is activated within seconds.


The SNS is part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – our personal surveillance system. It aims to keep us safe and protect us. The ANS consists of two branches – the SNS and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). They have opposite functions, which are to create a balance between the demands of life and the needs of our body. The activation of the SNS, our stress response, acts like an accelerator, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. Instead, the PNS, our relaxation response, acts like a brake. It promotes rest and digest, and calms the body down.


Interestingly, both branches cannot be activated at the same time. It is like a seesaw. One is up (active) while the other is down (inactive). Our goal should therefore be to keep balancing the imbalance of the seesaw.


stress seesaw

It is important to understand that it is impossible to be perfectly balanced all the time. But we can learn to notice better when we are leaning too much towards stress and find ways to restore balance quickly and effectively. A well-regulated nervous system should return to its natural state 20-30 minutes after the danger has passed. Animals, for example, literally shake the energy off their bodies. However, in our increasingly fast-paced world and due to the many demands and responsibilities during graduation, we often forget to take our foot off the accelerator and step on the brake.


We can see that stress is an integral part of our lives. Our body is always exposed to a certain amount of stress in order to function and keep us alive. For example, when we reach for the hot cooker top, it is our stress response that mobilises our body to withdraw our finger. When we have to give a presentation in front of a large audience, our stress response is also likely to be activated, especially if we fear the judgement of others or feel pressured to be particularly good. However, this stress can positively affect our alertness and performance.


Focus

Stress can also encourage us to focus on the things we really want, rather than the things that scare us. It can push us to go beyond our own limits so that we can continue to grow, change and achieve beyond our self-imposed limits. In stressful situations, we also often seek support and connection with others. This can strengthen social bonds and lead to a sense of community and belonging.


So we see that stress can also have positive effects, but only if we manage to relax after short periods of stress to re-balance the seesaw. The key to harnessing the positive effects of stress is to keep it at a manageable level. When stress becomes chronic and overwhelming, it can have a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health.


"In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts." - Fred Rogers

So what can we do to keep our stress at a healthy level?


There are two crucial regulating factors. We can: 1. Reduce certain stressors.

This means removing things from our daily lives that put us in a state of stress without benefiting us. For example, if we have too many demands during our PhD, we can learn to say "no" and work on our time management. Or we can learn to replace negative thought patterns (e.g. "My work must be flawless. Good is not good enough.") with more positive, beneficial ones (e.g. "Good is good enough. Mistakes are human and offer an opportunity to learn and grow.") Here it is important to understand that our perception of stress contributes significantly to the stress we feel! Because our brain cannot distinguish between imagination and reality, between present, past or future. This means that when your thoughts are associated with stress, fear or worry, they can directly trigger a stress response in your body. Instead, if we see stress as a reminder to slow down and take more care of ourselves, stress can be an important part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.


2. Utilise different tools to reduce stress.

It has been shown that different tools can help to reduce stress in the short and long term. For example, breathing exercises, meditation, enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise, nature walk, journaling, self-care, gratitude or a conversation with a good friend. You can learn to relax more in everyday life. Even a few deep, conscious breaths have been shown to help lower stress levels (Balban et. al. 2023; Ma et. al. 2019). However, not every activity is suitable for everyone. Therefore, it is important to find out what suits you. There are tools that are particularly suitable for acute stress phases (e.g. breathing, exercise, cold exposure) and activities that contribute to a lower stress level in the long term (e.g. meditation, gratitude, journaling).


Your Stress First Aid Kit

For an introduction to 12 effective tools and techniques for reducing stress during your PhD, check out my free e-book “Your Stress First Aid Kit - 12 tools and techniques to stress less during PhD“. In the e-book you will find further interesting information on the topic of stress, various reflection exercises and possibilities to put together your personalised stress first aid kit. It also includes a progressive muscle relaxation exercise as an audio file. Subscribe to my free newsletter and receive my e-book as a thank you.




In summary, it is neither possible nor effective to banish stress from our lives. However, if we start to befriend and better understand our stress, we can deal with it in a healthier way and even benefit from it to some extent. To do this, we need to start becoming more aware of our stress signals and incorporate tools and techniques into our lives that allow us to consistently enter a state of calm.


What contributes to your stress? How does stress feel in your body? What helps you to deal with stressful moments?


 

Are you looking for support to learn how to deal with stress in a healthy way and bring more balance into your life? Do you know what you need to change but keep falling back into old patterns?


Then let's tackle it together! Let's approach your PhD and life with more ease and joy. Schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to discuss your challenges and see how I can support you.

 

References:

  • Alidina, S. (n.d.). What Everyone Ought to Know About Relaxation [+ FREE audio]. https://www.shamashalidina.com/blog/about-relaxation-free-audio

  • Balban, M. Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M. M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., Holl, G., Zeitzer,J. M., Spiegel, D., & Huberman, A. D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell reports. Medicine, 4(1), 100895. DOI: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895

  • Brain & Spine (2019, December 09): What Happens to Your Body During the Fight-or-Flight Response? Your survival response explained. URL: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response/#:~:text=The%20stress%20response%20can%20be,to%20normal%20and%20calm%20down.

  • Hazell, Cassie M.; Niven, Jeremy E.; Chapman, Laura; Roberts, Paul E.; Cartwright-Hatton, Sam; Valeix, Sophie; Berry, Clio (2021): Nationwide assessment of the mental health of UK Doctoral Researchers. In: Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 8 (1). DOI: 10.1057/s41599-021-00983-8.

  • Kafedjiska, Ivona; Heckmann, Lea; Pires, Vanessa; Pankhuri, Saxena; Lasser, Jana (2022): The Mental Health Crisis among Doctoral Researchers – Findings and Best Practices. In: Zeitschrift für Beratung und Studium 17 (1), S. 1–7.

  • Lee, Hedwig et al. (2021): Systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. students. In: Scientific reports 11 (1), 1-12. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-93687-7.

  • Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li,Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

  • Maté, Gabor (2019): When the body says no. The cost of hidden stress. London: Vermillion.

  • Satinsky, Emily N.; Kimura, Tomoki; Kiang, Mathew V.; Abebe, Rediet; Cunningham, Scott; O'Connor, Daryl B.; Thayer, Julian F.; Vedhara, Kavita (2021): Stress and Health: A Review of Psychobiological Processes. In: Annual review of psychology 72, S. 663–688. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-062520-122331.

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