Self care strategies for graduate students

Graduate students face a variety of stressors, such as increased time spent on schoolwork, financial stress, graduate/teaching assistantships, career planning, and family issues (1,2,3).

Other stresssors include increased time spent on research and often starting at a new school, both of which can increase isolation; graduate school often requires shifting work style that goes from semester to semester to projects that can take months to years, with limited breaks in between.  Graduate students also have to manage work style, personality, and other relationship dynamics with their labmates and advisors; whom they may not have known when entering their program. These and other factors can impact graduate student mental health.

What are some mental health concerns among graduate students?

According to the American College Health Association, graduate students experienced the following mental health concerns in the previous 12 months (4):

  •        63% of students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety.
  •        58% of students reported feeling very lonely.
  •        46% of students reported that academics had been traumatic or very difficult to handle.
  •        41% of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function.
  •        24% of students reported that stress had negatively influenced their academics.

What factors could improve graduate student wellbeing?

One study found that top 10 predictors of graduate student wellbeing include overall health, living conditions, social support, sleep, academic preparation, career prospects, feeling valued and included, advisor relationship, academic engagement, financial confidence (5).

What is a potential self care plan for graduate students?

Daly and colleagues suggest a self care strategies unique to graduate students (6). Graduate students could consider customizing a self care plan based on these domains and example strategies (6).

Physical/body (6) 

Mind/mental (6)

  • Allow for internet and video game breaks
  • Engage in ‘brain breaks’: reading novel, doodling
  • Maintain realistic goals and expectations regarding school and grades
  • Break down large tasks into small tasks

Social/relationships (6)   

  • Spend time doing something active with <significant other> on weekend
  • Spend 1 day a week with cohort friends (no school work, actual fun)
  • Schedule facetime with partner

Emotional (6)

  • Make note of daily gratitude
  • CRY and deep breath
  • Listen to music to calm down/ release whatever you are feeling
  • Write for fun

Spiritual (6)     

  • Spend weekends in nature
  • Practice mindful positivity: look for the best in a situation
  • Sing during class breaks
  • Go to church (Sundays) or read several Bible verses

Work/professional (6)   

  • Schedule breaks to avoid burnout (90-min on, 10-min off, etc.)
  • Ask cohort members for advice
  • Make lists and stick to them with due dates
  • Celebrate task accomplishment
  • Adjust plan, time management, seeking out counseling support.

Other strategies to consider:

  • Daily routines, and short term hobbies and goals outside of work ( fitness/nutrition goals, cooking/recipes, arts and crafts, sports, etc) can help create a sense of control which can help balance some of the stress from uncertainties associated with graduate school.
  • Work on creating smaller tasks out of bigger projects.
  • Regularly meeting via support groups with other graduate students or students in your field.
  • Setting up a regularly scheduled meetings with your advisor can help establish structure, accountability, and increase focus.
  • Identify people you find supportive or enjoy being around and set up regularly scheduled times to meet up either in person or electronically (friends, family, colleagues, etc).
  • Avoidance of drugs, excessive alcohol, excessive caffeine.

Additional resources:

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

References:

  1. Mazzola JJ, Walker EJ, Shockley KM, Spector PE. (2011). Examining stress in graduate assistants: Combining qualitative and quantitative survey methods. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, 5(3), 198-211.
  2. Oswalt SB, Riddock CC. (2007). What to do about being overwhelmed: graduate students, stress, and university services. College Student Affairs Journal, 2007, 27 (l), 24-44.
  3. Fox JA. (2008). The troubled student and campus violence: new approaches. Chronicles of Higher Education, 55(12), A42-A43.
  4. ACHA grad student survey data: (from January 22, 2020 Michael J. Stebleton Lisa Kaler. Promoting Graduate Student Mental Health: The Role of Student Affairs Professionals and Faculty. JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 1. Feb. 2020  https://www.naspa.org/blog/promoting-graduate-student-mental-health-the-role-of-student-affairs-professionals-and-faculty
  5. University of California Berkeley. Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report 2014. http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf   Page 128. Accessed November 2020.
  6. Self care strategies in grad school. Daly BD, Gardner RA. A Case Study Exploration into the Benefits of Teaching Self-Care to School Psychology Graduate Students [published online ahead of print, 2020 Oct 23]. Contemp Sch Psychol. 2020;1-12. doi:10.1007/s40688-020-00328-3

Elections and Mental health

In the months leading up to the election, a 2019 survey of 3,617 participants showed that 45% of U.S. adults identified the 2020 presidential election as a significant stressor vs. 52% of adults who reported the 2016 presidential election as a significant source of stress (1).

As of summer, 2020, 77% Democrat and 62% of Republican survey participants identified the current political climate as a significant source of stress in their life. (2)

As the presidential election nears, it is possible this number is even higher.

What are some strategies to manage election related stress?

The American Psychological Association (3) offers the following strategies:

  • Stay informed, but know your limits (3):
    • Monitor how you feel after news consumption. Preoccupation with national events, interference with your daily life, may be a sign to cut back on your news intake and limit social media discussions.
    • Consider scheduling a short block of time in the morning and one in the evening to catch up on news without checking for every new update during the day.
    • During “digital breaks,” take time to focus on something enjoyable, such as a hobby, exercising, or spending time with family and friends.
  • Find commonalities with others (3):
    • If political differences arise with others, instead of heated discussions, consider hearing the other person’s story and look for commonalties within your views.
    • (Respectfully validating someone else does not mean you have to agree with them).
    • If calm and constructive conversation is difficult, it may be best to disengage from the conversation.
  • Find meaningful ways to get involved in your community (3):
    • This could be through local organizations, city council or town hall meetings, local politics, etc. Sometimes, taking active steps to address your concerns can lessen feelings of stress.
  • Seek solace (3):
  • Take care of yourself (3):
    • Exercise
    • Listen to your favorite music.
    • Spend time with close family and friends.
    • Prioritize getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods.
    • Avoid ineffective coping mechanisms such as alcohol and substances use.

Other thoughts:

  • Consider implementing healthy coping strategies that helped you cope with past stressful times in your life.
  • Try new healthy coping strategies mentioned above.
  • If you have difficulties despite these strategies: Go to our mental health support options page: https://ccs.osu.edu/mental-health-support-options/

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

References:

  1. American Psychological Association (2019). Stress in America: Stress and Current Events. Stress in America™ Survey. Accessed August 2019.
  2. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/stress-in-america-covid-july.pdf
  3. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-political-change

Mental health impact of interruptions

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

While there are benefits to having roommates, living with others, electronic devices, studying with others; even brief interruptions of work can have drawbacks.  A study (1) by Mark and colleagues looked at this issue.

What was the study?

  • Mark and colleagues (1) studied the impact of interruptions via phone or interruptions via instant messaging on 48 college students, average age 26 years old.
  • Participants were given information and asked to answer related emails as “quickly, politely, and correctly as possible”.
  • During the task, participants were subjected to phone or instant messaging interruptions related, or unrelated to the task or no interruptions.

What were the results?

  • Mark and colleagues (1) found that people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.
  • Depending on the type of interruption, they also found that it could take upto 23 minutes to return to the original task (1).

What are some potential strategies to minimize interruptions?

  • When studying minimize/turn off unnecessary notifications on your electronic devices.
  • Students may want to time some of their studying around the schedules of others in their living situation (house with family members, roommates, etc); and parts of the day when there are fewer interruptions by others.  It may be helpful to proactively communicate with others about your wish to not be interrupted for certain times of the day.
  • Identify study areas on campus that have few interruptions.
  • Some students may benefit from white noise or instrumental music to help maintain focus others may prefer a quiet space.
  • It may be useful to study or do a key task or two first thing in the morning before using electronic devices or doing other tasks.
  • Try keeping a notepad handy to make a note of any ideas or thoughts that may occur while you are working on a task.
  • Experiment doing 1 task at a time for with various chunks of time, to determine how long an ideal chunk of time is for you to stay focused on a single task.  This may help you schedule things more effectively in the future.
  • Consider meditation practice to improve your focus.
  • Consider the OSU Dennis Learning center to improve your study skills.
  • For stress management and mental health: Go to our mental health support options page: https://ccs.osu.edu/mental-health-support-options/

Other thoughts:

  • This is a small study and further research in this area is needed.
  • It is possible that some people may work better in high interruption environments.
  • It is also possible that interruptions have a different impact depending on the type of work you are doing and they type of interruption.
  • Further research in this area is needed.

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

References:

  1. Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. 2008. The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’08). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 107–110. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072