(photo credit: me)
Today is National Stress Awareness Day.
Having spoken with a few other part-timers recently, it seems that a certain level of stress is a pretty consistent feature of this particular mode of study. The combination of PhD, work and (in some cases) family commitments can be potent at times. I'm in the middle of one of these periods myself.
There are plenty of well-intentioned pieces written about stress. They're full of general advice that might apply to everyone, but I find it hard to make any use of these tips when I'm right in the middle of a stress-inducing period.
So rather than being general, I'd like to be specific. These are all real (hence, a little embarrassing) techniques that I use when I'm stressed. They work for my temperament, my lifestyle and my mood. But they aren't comprehensive.
A Stressful Week: Plan!
This is more of a means to preempt stress and try to minimise the effect it might have on you. I don't just mean writing a to do list here (although I am a big fan!) Instead, I try to plan ways that I might minimse the stress I might feel by planning to do non-work/PhD related things.
For me: This week I've had long train journeys up and down the country. I know that travelling causes me stress because I get anxious about making connections and getting lost. Knowing this, I planned to take along a good book, downloaded some podcasts, and took along a knitting project. All of these things distracted me from worrying and made the entire process easier.
For you: What will cause you most stress this week? Can you mitigate it? What will drain you most? Can you plan for rest periods? Can you alter your workload to make sure that you aren't burnt out by Wednesday?
A Stressful Month (or more): Count Down!
Sometimes, a busy week isn't the end of it. Instead, you may have weeks which will be high stress. Often, these periods revolve around deadlines, but it may be something else. In instances where the stressful period is defined (eg. you know you have a draft due in a month), I use a countdown to motivate myself to push through.
For me: This is the slightly embarrassing one. I found taking my final exams as an undergraduate hard. I was so stressed I couldn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time. I knew when my exams would be over; I just had to get there. So I did a cheesy thing that worked like a charm.
I took one post-it note for each day until the end of exams. On each, I wrote something that would make me smile. Jokes. Songs to listen to. Things I could do once I finished exams. Then I hid them all over my room. Each day, I would take down one post-it and consider it. I had something good in each day, and reminders of what I could look forward to.
For you: This might be too cheesy for everyone. But there are other ways. Can you reward yourself each day? Watch one episode of your favourite series? Have a small treat to look forward to? Whatever it is, count the days down as you go along.
A Stressful Right-Now-This-Very-Second: Disengage!
This is perhaps the hardest state to write about. Stress is cumulative, and I know that for me, it can build up to a rate I can't sustain. I can't focus. I get headaches. I get shaky. I feel like crying. And, very often, a lot of us get to this stage and we think we can just keep going. And we can't.
For me: I have to force myself to stop. I set a timer for 20-30 minutes. Crucially, I move away from my desk. Then I do something that is fun and absorbing. I force myself to focus on it until my timer goes off. Then I take 5 minutes to regroup, and plan.
This is not an intellectual exercise. So, I like to watch animal videos on youtube. Cats are my preferred genre, but I also like videos about inter-species friendship. If I'm at home, I might take 30 minutes to clean.
For you: Maybe animal-related videos aren't your thing. What will absorb you? Listening to music? Calling a friend? Taking a walk? Watching an episode of something? Whatever it is, do it for your allotted time, and then stop. (Otherwise you're just procrastinating.)
Of course, these are just the approaches that work for me. Your approaches will vary hugely. And I'd love to hear about them. What do you do to alleviate stress?