So today, I was given the opportunity to attend some training on how stress can affect a student throughout their PhD, delivered by Edinburgh Napier’s Mental Health Wellbeing team. The aim of the workshop was to bring students together to talk about this topic, and enable us to explore what stress was, how it can affect the progress of a PhD and more importantly what we can do about it.
The session started off with a quick ice breaker so that we could get to know each other. Surprisingly enough we had attended other trying events together so everyone were familiar faces. More importantly, we were then asked to discuss what parts of our PhD journeys were making us stressed, or what were we anticipating being stressful. Here are some of our suggestions:
- Expectations – if you are progressing well now, having the expectation that you will do well later on might impact on your stress. If you feel you might not keep up to standard, this may trigger feelings of worry or anxiety which cannot be good in that sense.
- Relationships with supervisors – we chatted about having a good supervisory relationship and what happens if you don’t. Supervisors may criticise us even if they are trying to make us do better and be better, but this could lead us to doubt our own abilities if we feel we are being constantly criticised.
- Deadlines – deadlines cropped up as one of the most likely things to cause stress. This is because deadlines fast approach and we often feel pressured to get the work done for this deadline. Opposite to this, a lack of deadline might be just as stressful as a deadline itself. Not knowing what we have to do by when might encourage us to feel as though we have no goals or direction which is not what a PhD is about at all.
- External factors – things that affect the PhD and we cannot control for these. Examples could be family commitments, illness or even equipment breaking that can all slow down PhD progress. For this, the lack of control means we have not planned ahead and this can cause stress if we do not know what we are going to do about the problem, if we are able to do anything at all.
There were some other conversations and points, but this is something that you could chat to your supervisors about or even your peers to see what has stressed them out and compare notes on where you all are on your journeys to success.
We then got down to the hard work – the PowerPoint! Our group leaders discussed several topics and we had input on what our thoughts are. For the purpose of this blog, I will keep them in separate sections so that if any stand out, there is no need to go through everything again.
So what is stress?
Stress happens when we feel that we cannot cope with some form of pressure or challenge, and it manifests itself into emotional, cognitive and physical changes that often are not pleasant. The body is a magical being in that stress has a reason. Have you ever heard of the fight or flight response? No? Well, when the body encounters something that it feels is a threat, it prepares to fight or run. This means, the body releases hormones upon threat detection to prepare for safety and help the person react in a way that can spare them from hurt. Take this as an example: you are walking through a local country park with your friends and you suddenly spot a bear running towards you. What do you do? Do you just stare and do nothing? No! You run. Your heart beats fast, you might become breathless, you may feel anxious or scared but you run. The body has this reaction to ensure we are safe in that it wants us to avoid or reduce the threat around us. So for example, in a PhD, a student may perceive a meeting with their supervisory team as a threat (if they have not prepared work or do not have a good relationship with the supervisor). Before the meeting the student may begin to feel anxious, feel breathless or worried, all of the responses that are initiated under threat. There might not be an actual threat to life for example, but it is about how the person perceives the stimulus or challenge and how they interpret it to what reaction they will have. You can find an interesting article on this cognitive phenomenon here just in case you are curious about the technical stuff around it. I will not go into all of the biological explanations of the fight flight response as I have had to sit in class after class learning about it and then testing the phenomena on participants. You can just do a quick google search. It might explain different regions of the brain that release the hormones and also the different nervous systems, but in reality it is the impacts of stress that affect PhD students and this is what I will focus on.
Stress becomes a cause for concern when it does not disappear despite efforts to reduce or eliminate it, it just does not budge. There is also not a good or sensible reasons for it, such as an upcoming deadline where the student is under pressure to work and there just does not seem to be a good reason for feeling stressed. That’s when it becomes a problem. Common signs of stress can fit into three main categories: physical / physiological, emotional and cognitive.
Cognitive (these are about our thinking processes, and how we think affects our behaviours):
- Poor concentration.
- Cannot think straight or coherently.
- Thinking we are unable to cope.
- Waiting / thinking the worst will happen.
Emotional (these are about how we feel):
- Feeling irritable.
- Feeling worthless.
- Feeling hopeless.
- Feeling on edge.
Physical /physiological (this is the way our body physically reacts):
- Poor sleep.
- Feeling tired or fatigued, generally not alert.
- Panic attacks which can result in fast heart rate and rapid breathing, tingling in the extremities (like hands and feel), feeling faint, temporal raised temperature.
- In extreme cases, the immune system will reduce its efficiency causing things like coughs or colds to be more common as the body cannot defend against these.
- The person will have a faster heart rate and blood pressure (adrenaline is released to help these beat faster when the body is under intense emotional or physical pressure).
- Eating and digestive habits changing, such as feeling like your stomach is churning or needing the toilet more often.
- Even things like increased drinking of alcohol to cope might be a cause for concern if not managed appropriately.
We finally got onto the purpose of the workshop, how can relate to your PhD? Well, in fact, it relates quite a bit! Those who are successful at getting a PhD are not always the ones who were least stressed, no. It could actually be the opposite. Those who are most successful in getting a PhD might be the most stressed (I have no evidence to prove this claim so do not take my word for it!), but they ARE the ones who were able to address the stress and create effective ways of reducing it before it impacted immensely on the PhD itself. You might be sitting there thinking that you are not currently feeling stressed, which is great, but just wait until you do. Will you know how you will feel and will you be able to recognise what this is? Commonly PhD students may feel as though they cannot work for some reason, either they have too much to do or they are not being productive. This is a common sign of stress. The student might feel overwhelmed by their own workload and this could also make a contribution to feeling overwhelmed and stressed. The student could also have the inability to focus which is too a common sign. However, there are some other signs which you might not think could be related. You might feel like your research has no impact and you have no control. You might feel like fraud or like you don’t belong (imposter syndrome discussed in a previous blog post). You may begin to fear failure and this could lead to failure itself if not addressed and even the easiest things can become difficult. So yes, these are all things that could be indicators that you are stressed. The most important part is being able to recognise what is normal and what is not, and doing something about it…
So I am feeling stressed, what can I do about it?
There is a lot you can do, form a small change to something big. The main thing is to IDENTIFY YOUR FEARS. Your fears will cause a lot of stress and avoiding things that you worry about will only make the stress worse. You need to challenge these fears, not avoid them. Plan out the steps you are going to take to overcome your fear and help reduce the stress. For example, if a student fear public speaking, this could be a cause of stress if they need to present to an audience. However, by taking steps to address this, such as practicing in front of friends / family, talking to supervisors and attending training on the topic, taking steps just like this will help reduce the stress if not eventually eliminate it. Dealing with the issues causing the stress will act as a barrier for the stress to begin in the first place and help to break the cycle of feeling anxious or stressed. If the thing causing stress is not there then you are already on the way for stress prevention (from whatever is making you stressed). These are good for emotional health but what about physical health? We discussed these too:
- Exercise – exercise can help relieve stress either by calming you down to focus on one activity or by helping release any built up energy that you have left.
- Relaxation – figure out what relaxes you and schedule in times to take a break and relax. For example, if listening to music does this, then schedule a break every now and then, or better still, have the evening off! I tend to keep my weekends free at the moment to take time off, knowing there will be weekends in the future that I will need to work.
- Good sleep hygiene is key. Getting a good night’s sleep is just what we need, however, some of us have difficulties. Try relaxing before bed so your brain is ready to switch off and also taking away off of those technological gadgets just before bed. This might help you to calm down.
- Nutrition – getting the right food at the right time helps. You will often find that stressed people might have an altered eating pattern, either eating too much too often or not at all. Take regular breaks to eat and make sure that the food is healthy. So have a god breakfast, lunch and dinner and snack in-between. If the nutrition is right then we will have more energy to get the work done and this could ultimately help reduce stress.
Applying different coping mechanisms can be useful for students to try and identify what is best for them. Some suggestions that we discussed are:
- Forward planning – planning ahead for issues, problems and even things like scheduling goals and breaks.
- Lists and prioritisation – now this is sometimes counterproductive if you have a long long long list. But if you do, don’t worry! Taking the top three or four items on that list and scheduling them in for a day will help reduce your work load. Doing this over a week will get your to-do list cut down considerably and planning to work on these at scheduled times is even better.
- Keep focused on your goal, why are you wanting to do the PhD in the first place? For me, it was partly become someone told me I could not do it and said that I would fail. I wonder if the person had ever heard the phrase ‘First Attempt In Learning’ before? Clearly not.
- Keep a diary of thoughts or a journal for your research. Noting down all of the little things you think of means they no longer have to stay in your head. Once they are on paper, that part of your brain is free to keep thinking.
- You could also talk to family, friends and colleagues. Chances are, your colleagues have encountered similar issues so may be able to offer more personalised advice. Universities have counselling and wellbeing services that can help talk through possible problems you are having and help you reflect on what you think you should do.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, ASK FOR HELP! IF YOU DO NOT ASK FOR HELP THEN HELP WILL NOT COME TO YOU AND YOU WILL BE STUCK IN A STRESS-PHD CYCLE UNTIL THE CYCLE IS BROKEN.
One final thing that did come out of the training was positive strategies. One of our group members mentioned thinking positively will help you cope and progress. I argued against this slightly. It might not necessarily mean that you have to be positive about everything. Be aware that bad things will happen, anticipate problems and plan ahead. Combine this with the pointers discussed about coping with stress and this might help you towards becoming a happy, healthy, stress-free (or reduced!) PhD student.