how to manage anxiety in grad school

How I Manage Anxiety in Grad School

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gGrad school is a different beast to undergrad. The stakes are higher, because now, I find myself doing work that can launch a career. And the margin for error is smaller. It doesn’t take much to fail, and if I do, there is often an impact on people other than me. The combined workload of my courses, thesis, and research work is a lot heavier than undergrad, and at this point, I’m also starting to get a very scratchy itch to see what life is like outside of school (I’ve been a student for nearly 20 years!).

If anxiety sets in, I start to feel like I’m in a pressure cooker, and I get a sinking, helpless feeling in my gut when I realize how much I have to do. This is when I tend to procrastinate, which provides a very temporary escape, but in the end, only worsens the way I feel.

I know I’m not alone in this (and if you can relate, neither are you!). Other grad students (see here too) experience anxiety, and it’s something that can be managed. I know that immobilizing nervous feeling all too well, and while I’m far from perfect, I have some strategies for keeping my anxiety under control. I don’t always follow them, but when I do, they help me a lot.

However, I’m not a professional, so don’t substitute this for professional advice. If you’re in need of help, you can go to your local student wellness office. If you’re in a crisis, you can call your local emergency number.

Set Timers

I often feel anxious because I feel trapped by the amount of work I have to do. I find that if I set a timer, it gives me a concrete reminder that I won’t be working forever–there is a finite period that I’ll have to do work. When the timer is up and I’m on a tight schedule, I find it effective to move on immediately to the next task, even if I don’t want to stop.

Take Breaks

I feel guilty taking breaks when I have so much to do, but I’ve found that taking them means I end up wasting less time than if I took a “break” by procrastinating. Even if it seems like a ridiculously generous amount of time, I try to remind myself to take a break. Purposefully stepping away from work means I’ll enjoy the time, unwind, and recover some energy to keep going. And it’s better than taking a “break” through procrastinating, which I tend to do when I’m feeling overwhelmed, and which leaves me feeling more stressed and energy-depleted in the end.

Start Early & Be Organized

This one’s from my Dad, who drilled this into me when I was struggling with some heavy and high-stakes undergrad courses. I’m naturally disorganized, so this is a struggle, but not an insurmountable one. I find it helpful to put myself on a routine, download all my course materials on or before the first day of class, and use a consistent filing system on my computer.

Related: How I Manage My Time: Organization For the Naturally Disorganized

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If I’m getting anxious, or I’ve messed up and watched a season of Jane the Virgin instead of working on my thesis, I find it very helpful to acknowledge my feelings and my mistake, and move on. Forgive yourself. Just because you screwed up doesn’t mean you’ll always screw up. You’re in control and you can make a change. In fact, you can change within the minute.

Learn How YOU Best Work

There are countless articles online that tell you the best ways and places to study, but my own opinion is that this is an individual thing. For example, some people may work well at home, while other people (like me) usually find it distracting.  For me, I know that working at home is usually futile because I’m entirely too comfortable. I’ll end up wasting hours of my time. So I get up and go to the library. The caveat, though, is that this strategy isn’t effective in every situation. It’s important to find my “borders,” because it’s possible that there is a limit to what’s effective. For example, even though I found that I worked best at the library, when I would get up and commute to the campus library each day (a 1 hr and 45 minute commute), I started getting burned out. I started dreading going out in the mornings, I was tired all the time, and my productivity dropped. But when I went to my local community library, 20 minutes away by bus, I was able to keep going. Not all libraries were helpful to me.

I’ve also found that how I best work can be influenced by things like the weather and changes to my environment. When it’s frigid and snowy outside, even a short commute can be daunting, draining, and demotivating. There are some days (hello, -30 °C weather) that I’m better off staying inside. And if my home environment changes, like when I had my own, well-lit room with a desk, it can turn out to be an environment that allows me to accomplish a lot even though I don’t normally work well at home. There are exceptions to the rule, and these are helpful on days when I’m struggling to follow my normal routine.

In addition, I find it helpful to watch how I react to my environment. What about them makes them easy or hard to work in? The answer to this question gives me useful information on the best way for me to do work. This is particularly important for me because my program is largely online. Most of the time, there’s no classroom for me to go and no place I’m required to do work, so it’s up to me to find a work environment. It’s a blessing, but if I get lazy about it, no work gets done so I have to be careful.

Monitor Your Emotions & Know Your Triggers

Anxiety can sneak up on me if I’m not paying attention. This might take time, but I think it’s helpful to get to know how my body, feelings, and behaviour start to change when I get anxious. Do I start to crave certain foods? Do I get aches in certain spots on my body? Do I start feeling “off” for no apparent reason? Knowing the signs that I’m starting to get anxious can help me manage my feelings before they turn into something bigger and more destructive.

Knowing my triggers is also helpful in this regard. In some situations, knowing this can help me avoid anxiety in the first place. One of my biggest triggers is a huge pile of work or feeling like I don’t have enough time to get things done. This means that it would help me out a lot if I did work well in advance. I’ve found that chipping away at things even a little bit every day (even for just 30 minutes!) makes work feel more manageable and helps me to avoid a huge pileup and that feeling that there’s only a small number of days or hours to get a task done.

Find a Coping Strategy

Is there something that can just wipe your mind of all the cluttered thoughts you can’t seem to get rid of? I’m not talking about drugs or alcohol (seriously, do not add to your grad school problems)–is there a prayer, a song, a ritual, a something–that can just make you feel calm? For me, I find it helpful to turn to those things when I start feeling anxiety creeping in. Music or reading my Bible can make me feel calm and relaxed. They’re easily accessible too (I can access both on my phone), so I know that help is always within reach.

For the Bible, I like to use the Bible.com app. And for music, Jango’s chill/downtempo station can really hit the spot (it helped to get me through undergrad), although I find that I’m gravitating more towards Soundcloud these days. If you’re interested in the songs I find calming, leave a comment and I’d be happy to share a few! Note: all opinions are my own, and I haven’t been sponsored to write about these apps

Related: The Cost of Chasing Dreams: Persevering Through Uncertainty & Failure

Just Do the Work

This is easier for some people than others, but this is something I personally struggle with, especially when I’m feeling that immobilizing kind of anxiety. But if you’re like me and  you’d rather run away than do the pile of work in front of you, I find it helpful to armour myself with my coping strategy and get to work. If I’m really struggling that day and need to pull on some of the other anxiety-managing strategies I mentioned, then I do it, but I’ve learned that I can’t wait until things are perfect. Sometimes, I have to just silence my anxious thoughts and get started. Sometimes the anxiety wins out, but I can’t afford to let it control me all the time. The great thing is that once I’m a few minutes into the work that was freaking me out, I almost always start to feel better.

Related: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

Grad school is tough, but it’s temporary. Anxiety can be stifling and suffocating, but it’s manageable. You can do this. Happy studying!

Keep in mind that I’m not a professional, so don’t substitute this for professional advice. If you’re in need of help, you can go to your local student wellness office. If you’re in a crisis, you can call your local emergency number.

Question: what do you do to cope with anxiety?

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10 comments on “How I Manage Anxiety in Grad School

  1. This was very helpful—thank you! As someone currently applying to go back to grad school, I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the onset of anxiety. I’ve definitely learned of the importance of organization and pacing. For me, once I have everything (due dates, presentations, meetings, etc.) visually planner out on a calendar and weekly to do list, it all feels more manageable!

    • Hey Joezette! I’m glad it was helpful! I agree – visually planning can really minimize the anxiety if I can see it all! I think it’s great that you’re prepping ahead of time. You’ll be ready that way. Best wishes for your grad school applications – applying is such an exciting and nerve-wracking time! Will you be blogging about your grad school experiences?

      • It’s BEYOND nerve-wracking haha. I just want a response! But yes! I definitely look forward to this new experience that will put me on a different path and all of the ways I will grow as an educator. It’s all a part of my journey so I look forward to being able to write about it as well☺️

        • I know that feeling! Just struggle through the compuslive email checking until the response comes lol. Looking forward to reading about your journey! I’m so curious to see what other people are doing with their degrees.

          • Lol I’m terrible with the email checking but glad to know I’m not alone!haha. What are you receiving your degree in?

            • Definitely not! I’m doing my degree in higher education. I don’t really know what I’m going to do with it yet, so looking everywhere for inspiration! What about you?

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