Managing your Stress

Published: Tues., December 13, 2016

A graduate student’s life is filled with many activities and responsibilities that might produce stress. It can be tempting to use the holidays and vacations as time to recover from stress, but using stress management techniques throughout the year will help you deal with that current stress and help prevent future situations from becoming too stressful. While some stress can help you get things done, long-term stress, especially when unaddressed, can lead to more serious health or mental heath conditions. Stress has been associated with the increased risk of getting sick, greater irritability, difficulty focusing, and sometimes even more serious medical conditions. Regardless of the source of the stress, it is essential that you understand how to manage it effectively to prevent stress from overwhelming your life.

Focus on Relaxation

Meditate or engage in deep breathing exercises

breathe sign
"Collaboration: a small breath " by Wayne Stratz; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Many graduate students find that short meditation exercises can help them recenter and focus better on the task at hand. Even if you don't have time to learn meditation techniques, spending even 5 minutes focusing on your breathing can help clear away stress. When you feel yourself becoming stressed, close your eyes, and slowly breathe in and out for a few minutes focusing on your breathing. This exercise will help your body relax and counteracts your body’s natural reaction to stress.

Schedule time to rest

Make time for rest in your daily schedule. Even if it’s just blocking out 30 minutes to watch a TV show you like or planning to sit and eat lunch away from your work, this will help you recover mentally. Focusing on a problem for too long can often inhibit your ability to come up with new solutions. Taking a little bit of time doing something else can help you return to that problem refreshed and may even lead to a useful insight.

Take up a new hobbies

Find an activity that you enjoy, not related to your coursework or research. This activity might be cooking, arts & crafts projects, volunteering, or playing video games. Regardless of what you choose, it should be something you are passionate about and enjoy doing. Try to think beyond what you might do in your program. Having a hobby outside of your studies allows you to have something to do that you can feel successful doing that is wholly unconnected with your graduate school work.

Seek Support

Spend time with friends or family

Over the holidays, many graduate students spend time with their close friends and family members. While it is certainly worthwhile to do so over holidays and vacations, this should not be the only time you spend time with this part of your support network. Make time to call and talk with your family and friends, especially if they are far away. For friends that are in town, try to find time to see them once and while. If your time is limited, combine this with another activity to want or need to do. Maybe you can workout together or plan to meet each other regularly for lunch. Talking about your stresses with others is important to effectively managing any stresses that arise.

Lean on your peers for support

The easiest place to look for support is the other graduate students at UNL or in your department. Whether you join a student organization or just plan to meet up with peers for dinner every week or two, these are the people most likely to understand your concerns. Talk with them about your concerns and stresses—you will likely find they have the same issues and they may have advice that can help. Even if they can’t solve your problems, it can be comforting to find that others share your worries.

Seek Help If You Need It

CAPS offers support groups for stress management and is available as a resource if you need more significant help to work through your stress. All students, including graduate students, are eligible for 4 sessions with CAPS counselors during their time at UNL. If you need help, do not be afraid to seek it.

Change Your Mindset

Say "No" When You Need To

"Can you help me with this project?" "Would you like to be part of this committee? It'll look good on your CV." For many, these questions are all too common. Remember that you do not have to say "yes" to everything someone asks you to do. When someone asks you to join a committee or add another project to your schedule, consider first whether that project is something you value. If you are not in some way interested in the project you are unlikely to feel motivated to complete it. Second, ask "how much time will this take?" If you do not have time to do it, it is okay to say so.

Don’t Chase Perfection

Sometimes “good enough” is just that. Spending hours perfecting everything you do can be a time-consuming and exhausting task. While there may be some tasks you need to spend more time focusing on, not everything needs to be “perfect”. For many tasks, "good enough" work will be fine.

Take Care Of Your Physical Health

Get adequate sleep

It can be easy to skip sleeping when you have a project due soon. Anyone who has gone without a full night’s sleep can tell you that they probably do not function well the next day. Not sleeping enough each night has been associated with increased irritability and may affect your ability to handle stressful situations well. The amount of sleep you need may vary, but for most people this means sleeping between 6 and 8 hours a night. Figure out what you need to function most effectively and try to schedule your day to allow for that. Sleeping 12 hours a night on the weekend is not a substitute for not sleeping well during the week.


Even if you do not have time to workout regularly at the gym, try to find time for small workouts. This could be walking the dog, taking a walk around the neighborhood, yoga, or something more rigorous like playing on an intramural sports team. Your student fees cover the cost of using Campus Recreation gyms and spaces, so don’t hesitate to take advantage of those services if you can.

Eat Well

breathe sign
"fruits " by Katrinitsa; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Between limited budgets and limited time, graduate students often fall into the habit of eating fast food or other less healthy options daily. Eating healthier food will help you feel better and probably make you more productive. Budget friendly options exist. Cooking at home and buying healthier foods in bulk are simple ways graduate students can eat better and save money. Consider meal sharing with friends to save money on the cost of healthy meals.