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Managing Stress and Anxiety in Graduate School

Stress and anxiety can strike at any age and grade. However, graduate students experience a different type of stress than their undergraduate and workforce counterparts.

According to a 2018 study on stress and health behavior among graduate students, “Since graduate school is less about transitioning to independent living, but rather focusing on a specific career path, the stress experiences are often more related to academic pressure, finances, career planning, and other responsibilities. This focus on academics may contribute to a lack of healthy balance in one’s personal life.” 1

This guide will discuss the difference between stress and anxiety, how to recognize the signs, what causes graduate students to experience such conditions, tips for managing stress and anxiety, and additional resources if you need more help.

What Are Stress and Anxiety?

In simplest terms, stress is generally short-lived and related to a specific external situation, while anxiety is persistent, excessive worrying, and may not have a particular trigger. While stress is a response to an external cause or factor and usually lessens when the cause is over, anxiety is the internal reaction to that stress that may persist even after the initial concern has passed.

But there’s a gray area: These terms are sometimes used interchangeably because stress and anxiety have similar physical and emotional symptoms. 2 Keep in mind, the longer anxiety lasts, the more likely you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, which is relatively common.

Stress Statistics

As of this writing, the most recent stress-related statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA) include issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. The APA’s Stress in America™ 2021 report notes that stress levels, in general, have been holding steady over the last few years, with significant causes of stress remaining mostly unchanged between 2019 and 2021.

According to the APA, the most common causes of stress include:

  • Work (66%)
  • Money (61%)
  • Economy (59%)
  • Family responsibilities (57%)
  • Personal health concerns (52%)
  • Family health concerns (51%)
  • Relationships (51%)
  • Housing costs (51%)

In general, the younger generations are more likely to feel stressed. Those who are currently young teens through about age 24 are the most stressed, followed by those ages 26 to 42—the age range most likely to be in graduate school.

Currently, many Gen Z-ers say focusing on their academic futures is nearly impossible. In fact, 87% of those in college say education itself is a major source of stress. Though most of Gen Z isn’t graduate school-aged yet, they are quickly approaching those years.

Between all the constant stressors, the negativity they’re feeling toward school, and the potential for prolonged aftershocks from 2020-2021, will they even enroll in graduate school? And what happens to our workforce that requires higher degrees if they don’t?

Anxiety Statistics

Anxiety disorders are the most common set of mental illnesses in the United States. Approximately 18.1% of Americans over 18 deal with an anxiety disorder each year—yet less than 40% of people experiencing these treatable disorders seek treatment. 3

Anxiety and depression frequently go hand-in-hand, with about 50% of people with depression also living with anxiety. In one study of first-year graduate health sciences students, 17% had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, 6% had suicidal ideation, and 14% had moderate to severe anxiety. 4 And those are just first-year students graduate students.

It’s much harder to continue your studies if you take a break to receive extensive mental health treatment. So as soon as you recognize there’s a problem, it’s important to seek assistance.

Types of Stress

There are three umbrella types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. 5

Acute stress is a reaction to an emergency or thrilling situation, like going to a haunted house on Halloween or hitting the brakes just in time to avoid rear-ending a car. For graduate students, this could be a pop quiz or being called on in class when you aren’t sure of the answer.

Episodic acute stress is when you encounter acute stress often. This is especially true if you’re in graduate school, where each day can bring unexpected challenges, and you’re trying to juggle all the demands of your program. Severe acute stress is an extreme version of one of the above. This can lead to post-traumatic dress disorder (PTSD) or similar issues.

“The workload is too much, especially for teaching assistants (TAs),” says Irem, a graduate student in the social sciences, about her episodic acute stress. “Last year, I was a TA for all core Ph.D. courses as well as one undergraduate course, and they were all different subjects. With this workload, we are trying to meet the deadlines for our own assignments and research.”

Chronic stress means you’re under high stress for an extended period, which may be the situation for many grad students. While you may be under a lot of pressure, if the stress is unbearable, you should seek the help of a professional.

Any of these types of stress can ultimately trigger anxiety.

Common Causes of Graduate Student Stress

When people think of graduate school, they may think it’s similar to high school or undergraduate school: class, study, homework, exams, repeat.

However, graduate school is distinctly different from other levels of schooling in a fundamental way: The students are independent adults. Even without school, being a grown-up is stressful. Whether attending an online program (such as one of many online Master of Social Work programs) or an on-campus one, students are expected to do all that is required of undergraduates, plus more. In addition, much of graduate study is done independently, and many students struggle with staying motivated to do this on their own, perhaps without peers doing the same work.

In addition to one’s own academic work, graduate students may be dealing with:

  • Financial worries: To attend school, you may need to alter or eliminate job schedules. You may need to acquire loans to pay tuition or living expenses. Even graduate students with stipends or TAships may find that their income does not stretch far enough, particularly in high cost-of-living cities.
  • Caregiving woes: You may need to arrange for care related to children, ill relatives, and even pets to accommodate class schedules.
  • Strained relationships: Whether you are attending grad school part-time or full-time, spending hours on classwork and research, sometimes for years, can strain relationships with friends and family.
  • Career uncertainty: Graduate students are in school because they want the education and credential to seek a specific type of career. Making many life changes—in some cases, moving internationally or completely changing income and lifestyle—to pursue a particular path can heighten the stakes.
  • Heavy workload: Like Irem, the graduate student wh cited TAing numerous courses as a big source of stress, many grad students are juggling their own research and academic studies with teaching, grading, research assistant responsibilities, or training hours.
  • Academic risk: Graduate students may face certain “up or out” hurdles to complete or even continue further in their programs, such as comprehensive exams or capstone or thesis work products. These may be difficult to achieve even for students who are used to studying for undergraduate courses. In addition, grad students’ fate in a program can sometimes rest on the actions or judgment of their faculty adviser, who in the best circumstance is a supportive guide but can sometimes be disengaged or unhelpful.

All these strains can, of course, be manageable and not overwhelming. But there are many things even the most prepared graduate student can’t necessarily be ready for until they experience them.

Anxiety Among Graduate Students

Many mental health issues like anxiety and depression “begin during the adolescent and early adult years with increasing pressure during transition periods, such as the college and graduate school years, as these are particularly stressful times.” 6

In a piece for Scientific American, graduate student Prateek Puri reflected on graduate students being three times likelier to have mental health issues, with 10% experiencing suicidal thoughts. Puri stated, “While these findings are alarming to some, as a current graduate student myself, I regard them as hardly surprising.” 7

As Puri points out, this is partly because many people don’t realize that not all graduate programs have specified graduation dates. Uncertainty is the root of anxiety.

While some programs require a specified number of credits and a clear end goal (thesis, dissertation, capstone, etc.) to be completed by a certain date, many subjects are “publish or perish,” with students expected to churn out publishable work meeting standards of the profession.

Even when there is an end date, every piece of work can seem to be a make-or-break situation. In social work, for instance, students are often tasked with helping people with real-life implications to their problems. This is all while still studying, writing papers, and training to do this correctly.

Then, no matter how well you do throughout your program, many end with a major project that can be rejected, putting your degree and future employment in the field at risk. With everyday adulthood worries, the stress of school, and not knowing when or if you’re going to complete your program combined, you have anxiety’s perfect storm.

Irem describes her anxiety during her graduate program: “The reason why I was very anxious is that I had no time to prepare for the presentations because of my TA responsibilities and stress stemming from that, and I felt like I wasn’t able to show my true potential. My work was sloppy, I was struggling emotionally, and the professor had no flexibility.”

Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety for Graduate Students

If something feels off, examine your physical and mental health to help determine if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. 8, 9, 10

Note: These symptoms alone can’t tell you which you’re experiencing; they just let you know something isn’t right. Never hesitate to seek professional assistance; we list some resources at the end of this guide.

Physical Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Regardless of whether you’re dealing with stress or anxiety, some of the signs can include:

  • Worsening sleep
  • Exhaustion
  • Muscle pain
  • Gastrointestinal distress

Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

  • Increased irritability
  • Anger
  • Feeling like having fun is wasting time

Cognitive Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems

 

COVID-19 and Graduate Student Stress and Anxiety

An article for Nature pulled no punches with its article titled, “Signs of depression and anxiety soar among US graduate students during pandemic.” 11 It referred to an extensive study in 2020 of over 15,000 graduate and 30,000 undergraduate students that discovered anxiety rose by 50% compared with the year before COVID-19 became a global crisis. More specifically, after being given psychological exams, 39% of graduate students tested positive for anxiety, and 32% were positive for depression.

As Sarah Lipson, a public health researcher at Boston University, said, “The pandemic has unearthed so much uncertainty, and that’s what anxiety is all about,” adding she noticed a rise in “hopelessness among young people.”

Different groups were affected at different rates. For example, female students more often had to take on additional caretaking responsibilities in addition to—or instead of—school. LGBTQ learners reported a loss of community and easy access to resources, with some having to “return to the closet.” Lower-income students showed higher anxiety. However, no graduate students were invulnerable to anxiety and stress caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, as everyone had class disrupted, dealt with grief, or simply had to “watch the world burn” while feeling helpless.

10 Ways to Manage Stress in Graduate School

The good news is that there are many ways you can keep stress under control during graduate school. “Getting help,” explains Irem when asked how she managed stress and anxiety. “I applied to the counseling services at the university, and talking to a counselor was the best thing during those times. It helped me with slowing down my thoughts and clearing my mind. The other thing that really helps is working out, whether walking, yoga, pilates, etc.”

You can also use many of these tips to handle anxiety.

1. Practice Reappraisal

Trying to ignore stress tends to lead to adverse outcomes. Reappraisal, on the other hand, can lead to positive results like increased motivation and resiliency. 12 So when you feel stressed, try to look at stress as providing you with a challenge you can meet, rather than a barrier.

2. Use Your Advisor

When students enroll in college, they’re given an advisor whose job it is to help them find resources to manage stress, schedule classes in a way that meets their needs, and more. If your advisor is not a good resource, seek counsel from another faculty or staff member you trust.

3. Take a Break

Every second spent not working feels like a second wasted. However, when you don’t give your brain a rest, it becomes less effective. Do something you enjoy, whether it’s going for a run, watching a movie, or meditating even for just half an hour. “I create time for myself,” says Irem. “For example, I do nothing related to work/school/research on Sundays, even if I am swamped.”

4. Talk to a Loved One

Spending some time talking to a friend or family member on the phone, in person, or even via text can be a great way to relieve stress. That person can serve both as a sounding board and a distraction.

However, it’s essential to avoid “co-ruminating,” where you both spend the conversation in worry. This can make things worse. You don’t have to avoid a loved one who is prone to this—just try to steer the conversation elsewhere. 13

5. Make a Plan and Stick to It

Create a to-do list of what you must get done (including eating and sleeping) and what you want to do. While some changes may be unavoidable, don’t feel bad about saying “no” to an invitation you don’t want or need to accept.

“I keep a task list so that I can see clearly what I am facing. Focusing on one task/thing at a time is also very helpful when buried in work,” says Irem. “I keep telling myself that I just need to start somewhere, and the rest will be more straightforward.”

Prioritizing and planning give you control over your life, and having control can lower stress and anxiety. 14

6. Celebrate Small Wins

If you just finished a massive term paper, treat yourself to an ice cream sundae, a night out with friends, or even that haircut you’ve been putting off. You deserve it. And as a post on Duke University’s website explains, acknowledging you’ve done your work via a reward “can give your endorphins a boost, allow you to breathe a little deeper, and provide a shift in focus that can be valuable in regenerating yourself for the next leg of the journey.” 15

7. Find a Mentor

Try to find a person who is a year or two ahead of you—or a recent graduate—and is willing to talk about their experiences. Regardless of whether or not they have good advice for you, just seeing that someone has survived can be helpful! 16

8. Eat a Stress-Busting Diet

Eating healthy is always a good idea, but some foods are better for stress management than others. According to WebMD, these are stress-reducing foods based on their vitamin content and “comfort food” statuses: 17

  • Almonds
  • Avocados
  • Black Tea
  • Carbs
  • Crunchy raw vegetables
  • Milk
  • Oranges
  • Pistachios
  • Salmon, tuna, and other fatty fish
  • Spinach

9. Go to the Doctor

When was the last time you had a checkup? Taking an hour for a routine physical or your flu shot could save you a week or more in bed with an illness. 18

10. Write in a Journal

Journaling can help you process your feelings and get your stress out so you can start fresh tomorrow.

Can Stress Be Helpful?

Stress can be helpful; anxiety can’t. There’s a term for good stress, which is “eustress.” Some experts suggest that we focus on eustress rather than stress (or, more accurately, “distress”) when discussing the role of stress in academics. 19 If you tell someone, “Stress is always bad,” they often internalize it and feel and act accordingly.

A few positive effects of stress are:

  • Increased emotional regulation: When someone engages in reappraisal rather than suppression after a stressful event, they can often improve their ability to regulate emotions over the long haul.
  • Reframing mindset: When one accepts stress can be positive—eustress—it can be beneficial to long-term learning because they view stress as a part of the journey toward a goal.
  • Improved motivation: Unless the stress is unbearably high, it can enhance motivation via the “fight or flight” response.
  • Better relationships: Talking out stress with loved ones or in support groups can strengthen bonds and make people feel less alone. 20
  • Increased alertness and memory: Moderate stress has been shown to stimulate stem cell growth in rats, which can have long-term positive effects on learning and memory. Researchers theorize that this is likely the same in humans. 21

As a reminder, stress can only be helpful over the short term and in moderate amounts. Severe acute or chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other health issues. 22

How to Get Help With Anxiety

The above ways to manage stress could help with anxiety, but anxiety is still a bigger beast—especially if it has become an anxiety disorder. If you realize stress is overtaking your life or have a personal or family history of anxiety, seek additional help.

The type of therapy you receive depends on the kind of anxiety you have. Anxiety relating to an eating disorder is handled very differently than generalized anxiety disorder, for instance.

Don’t wait to get help. While some stress can be motivating, as discussed, consistent stress and anxiety can have physical, emotional, and cognitive detriments over the long term—in other words, trying to “tough it out” can harm you academically. Therefore, it’s better to take a little time to get help than to potentially spend a lot of time recovering from the consequences of waiting.

Additional Resources for Graduate Students

Most larger college campuses have mental health centers available, and the cost of their services is often built into your tuition and fees. However, if you’re uncomfortable with this route—if you’re a counseling major, for instance, you may know the counselor you’re talking to—speak with your advisor, the disability office, or search online for affordable therapy options in your area that are unconnected with your educational institution.

Beyond those options, here are a few additional resources for graduate students dealing with stress and anxiety:

13 Books That Shine a Light on Anxiety
This list from Healthline, reviewed by Kendra Kubala, PsyD, points out 13 books that may help you deal with anxiety. Look through the list and see which ones speak to you.

Calm
This app helps with sleep, stress, anxiety, focus, and more. It uses breathing exercises, calming stories read by celebrities with soothing voices, and a function to track your mood over time to help you with your challenges. Healthline’s medically reviewed article on it may help you decide if Calm is right for you.

Stress and Anxiety Quiz
Greater Good Magazine, run by U.C. Berkeley, created this quiz to help you determine if you’re dealing with stress or anxiety. (Note: This is not meant to diagnose but to guide.)

Talkspace
Talkspace is an online therapy service that allows you to contact a licensed professional counselor on your schedule. The site takes a variety of insurances and now offers medication management in addition to traditional counseling.

The National Grad Crisis Line
Grad Resources offers a wealth of information for graduate students who may be struggling, but we particularly want to point out their helpline. Graduate students in crisis can call them anytime; a trained volunteer will be waiting. 1-877-472-3457

Sources

1 Van Berkel, K., & Reeves, B. (2018). Stress Among Graduate Students in Relation to Health Behaviors. College Student Journal, 51(4), 498-510. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rachel-Bradley-4/publication/325743793_Measuring_self-efficacy_and_self-regulation_in_online_courses/links/5d65857b299bf1f70b1234df/Measuring-self-efficacy-and-self-regulation-in-online-courses.pdf#page=54

2 The Jed Foundation. (n.d.). Understanding Anxious Feelings. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from The Jed Foundation: https://www.jedfoundation.org/resource/understanding-anxious-feelings

3 ADAA. (2020). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from ADAA: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics

4 Hoying, J., Mazurek Melnyk, B., Hutson, E., & Tan, A. (2020). Prevalence and Correlates of Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Healthy Beliefs, and Lifestyle Behaviors in First-Year Graduate Health Sciences Students. Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(1), 49-59. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/wvn.12415

5 Healthline. (2020, February 25). Everything You Need to Know About Stress. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/stress

6 Hoying, J., Mazurek Melnyk, B., Hutson, E., & Tan, A. (2020). Prevalence and Correlates of Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Healthy Beliefs, and Lifestyle Behaviors in First-Year Graduate Health Sciences Students. Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(1), 49-59. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/wvn.12415

7 Puri, P. (2019, January 31). The Emotional Toll of Graduate School. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-emotional-toll-of-graduate-school/

8  Van Berkel, K., & Reeves, B. (2018). Stress Among Graduate Students in Relation to Health Behaviors. College Student Journal, 51(4), 498-510. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rachel-Bradley-4/publication/325743793_Measuring_self-efficacy_and_self-regulation_in_online_courses/links/5d65857b299bf1f70b1234df/Measuring-self-efficacy-and-self-regulation-in-online-courses.pdf#page=54

9 American Psychological Association. (2020, September 21). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? Retrieved October 17, 2021, from American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/anxiety-difference

10 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 150-156. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.02.058

11 Woolston, C. (2020, August 18). Signs of depression and anxiety soar among US graduate students during pandemic. Nature, 585, 147-148. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02439-6

12 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 150-156. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.02.058

13 Korte, K.J., Denckla, C.A., Ametaj, A.A., & Koenen, K.C. (2020). Managing Stress. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Harvard university: https://gsas.harvard.edu/student-life/harvard-resources/managing-stress

14 UC Davis. (2021, March 2). 5 Tips for Grad School Stress. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from UC Davis: https://gsm.ucdavis.edu/blog/5-tips-grad-school-stress

15 Class, G. & Pesetski, C. Tips for Dealing with Stress. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from Duke The Graduate School: https://gradschool.duke.edu/student-life/health-and-wellness/tips-dealing-stress

16 IU Bloomington. Surviving Graduate School. Retrieved October 16, 2021 from IU Bloomington Student Health Center: https://healthcenter.indiana.edu/health-answers/psychological-stress/grad-school.html

17 Zelman, K.M. (2019, November 5). Foods That Help Tame Stress. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from WebMD: https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-diet-for-stress-management

18 Reeves-Blurton, Z. (2020, October 20). Tips to help graduate students manage mid-semester fatigue and stress. Retrieved from Arizona State University Graduate College on October 16, 2021: https://graduate.asu.edu/blog/professional-development-and-events/tips-help-graduate-students-manage-mid-semester-fatigue-and

19 Rudland, J.R., Golding, C., & Wilkinson, T.J. (2019). The stress paradox: How stress can be good for learning. Medical Education, 54, 40-45. DOI: 10.1111/medu.13830

20 Selna, E. (2018, November 20). How Some Stress Can Actually Be Good for You. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Time: https://time.com/5434826/stress-good-health/

21 Jaret, P. (2015, October 20). The Surprising Benefits of Stress. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Greater Good Magazine: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_surprising_benefits_of_stress

22 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 150-156. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2017.02.058