How stressed do you feel on a scale of 1 to 10?
This is not a straightforward question. There is good stress (eustress*) and there is bad stress (distress). Eustress is the stress that makes us feel motivated, energetic and engaged when doing something challenging. It can feel scarey, exciting and even dangerous sometimes, such as starting a new job, preparing to give a presentation, setting up a new experiment or skydiving. It releases adrenalin and brings us alive to achieve more than we may feel we’re capable of doing. Once the project or event is over and this stressor is removed from the equation, we can relax and go back to the status of feeling stress-free, at least in this particular area of our lives.
A quick search of #stress #PhD on Twitter reveals a plethora of results describing stress that is more aligned with bad stress, or distress. This is where those undertaking a PhD and working within the academic research environment report on negative stressful experiences, such as feeling powerless, being bullied, over-working, and not feeling properly supported to achieve their aims. Examples might include, a lack of funding, having a paper rejected, having to teach oneself new skills for which more formal training is needed, administration overload, or the prospect of a contract coming to an end.
This kind of bad stress can arise directly from being in a stress-free state or morph from eustress into distress due to outside stressors, usually originating from sources and influences beyond our own control. For example, a researcher could have been quite happily running their experiment, when suddenly they find that the equipment they needed has been removed without their knowledge, causing their state of stress to descend into distress. Or perhaps, on a larger scale, their career aim to secure an academic post has not been realised and they’re finding the prospect of leaving academia distressful.
You can most likely list areas of your own life, both professional and personal, where you have toggled between stress-free, eustress and distress states. Can you identify the stressors and the de-stressors? This is important. Ask yourself when, why and how it has happened. What has made your stress situation turn into a distress situation and how have you managed to switch it back into either eustress or stress-free states? It might have been a really drastic measure, such as leaving your job altogether or even seeking medical help. However, most probably your strategy has been less severe and life-changing.
De-stressors that are not helpful or healthy tend to be ‘drug’ related, such as alcohol, smoking, over-eating (sugar) or obsessive compulsive activity such as over-exercising. These serve to mask the distress temporarily, creating a temporary state of eustress, but in the long-run causing the situation to prolong and worsen. On the contrary, healthy de-stressors are more effective and sustainable. Here, I’ve listed some suggestions and you may have others of your own to add:
- Recognise – Admitting to yourself that there’s a problem is the most important start to the de-stressing process. Listen to your body and respond to it. If you’re not sleeping, if you have high anxiety levels or other negative symptoms it’s time to act. We’re all different and what distresses one person, may not have the same effect on another. Equally, what acts as an effective de-stressor in one situation may not work in another. Go with your instinct and don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not super-human and indestructible!
- Manage – Ask yourself if you’re able to manage your distressful situation. Can you change your own behaviour to help alleviate the stress levels? Perhaps your time management needs to be improved or you could delegate some tasks to others to reduce your own workload. Sometimes it’s hard to say ‘No’ to people when asked to take on more responsibilities, but weigh up whether it’s of value to your career prospects, or whether you could hand over other tasks in order to accommodate a new project.
- Communicate – Have you told anyone about your distress or are you keeping it to yourself? You may have confided in your friends and family, but have you told those in positions of influence, such as your supervisor, collaborators, the HR office or a professional careers adviser about your situation? Many people shy away from doing this as they fear it will be seen as a weakness or that it will make no difference, or worse still, will result in even more distress. However, if no-one knows about your state of stress, they won’t be able to do anything about it, when there could be a simple solution. For example, I have helped many researchers out of a state of distress, through offering them advice and information on potential non-academic careers, raising their confidence to transition into industry and other career sectors.
- Be good to yourself – Consider what relaxes you into a stress-free state, such as exercise, mindfulness, going to the cinema, socialising, getting outside, etc. For me, walking my dog was my best de-stressor; it took about 20 minutes of watching him sniffing and rolling around to help me to get a perspective on things and to calm down. Everyone is different and the de-stressing methods may only work for a limited amount of time, but it can be enough sometimes to help you to deal with the situation until it runs its course, especially if there’s nothing you can practically do to change things right now.
Finally, from the perspective of someone who has spent many hours offering career guidance and coaching to PhD and postdoctoral researchers, if you’re feeling unsure about your future or even that your career has derailed, if your confidence levels have sunk to a level that is causing you distress, consider seeking support from a careers adviser or coach, attending professional development courses or joining an early career researcher group. Recent research has shown that these types of activity can improve mental health and even have a positive effect on productivity.
*Originally introduced by endocrinologist, Hans Seyle, the term ‘Eustress’ means beneficial stress and derives from the Greek prefix, ‘eu’, meaning good, as in, for example, ‘euphoria’.