Assignments are piling up, conflicting quizzes, lack of time, demanding schedules… Just reading this may make you experience gentle palpitations. I reckon the word stress comes to mind, perhaps? Stress is an integral part of the human experience and, in fact, vital for survival. Mild stress can motivate us and stimulate creativity, which may improve productivity. However, individuals vary in how much stress they can bear and their unique ways of managing it. During times of elevated stress levels when methods to cope with it are ineffective, you’ll note that your health suffers. If left unchecked, it can lead to both physical and psychological problems.1,2
While we experience stress throughout our lives, it can be higher at certain stages of life. One such period of prolonged high pressure is pursuing higher education, such as graduate school. This period in life is topped with diverse stressors. These include interpersonal relationships (with friends, romantic interests, professors, etc.), financial concerns, worries about the future and expectations to achieve. The demands of daily academic life further compound the everyday events you encounter. If left unattended, high-stress levels in an educational setting can lead to student burnout, dropout and overall impairment of intellectual functioning.2,3
For students seeking to improve stress management, striving toward a school-life balance is a healthy coping mechanism.6 For example, taking a walk or getting some physical activity in between classes is beneficial for your physical health and will also boost your mood and leave you with a positive feeling that your energy is not entirely consumed by academic life.1,6 There are numerous other strategies, such as listening to music, seeking social support from friends and family, practicing deep breathing or journaling.4,5
Sometimes, life may start to slow down too much. Ultimately, the school-life balance will differ for each of you, and it’s essential to consider what that balance looks and feels like for yourself. Balance does not necessarily mean an even split. The accurate balance between all the different components in life is elusive for most individuals, whether they are students or not.1,4 A more realistic ‘balance’ may feel more like satisfaction with how much time and energy each activity takes.8
You may feel like you’re not making progress toward your goals or even feel surrounded by negative emotions at times. During these times, getting motivated to set goals and reach them can be most challenging. However hard it may be to get started, it’s essential to follow through on the things you want to do. Students can use strategies to strive toward a more balanced academic life, such as:
– Set a schedule: being busy doesn’t mean the same as being productive. Therefore, having a plan ahead and having your activities listed out can assist you in keeping track of your time and better assessing whether your plan supports your ‘balance’ and well-being. This is easily doable today with various apps on your phone.
– Set realistic goals: using SMART goals not only for long-term goals but for smaller ones. If you need to, use this goal-setting handout to help you plan your process.
– Know your limits: check your stress levels often and when it seems you’re passing your threshold, make time to care for yourself. Remember that mistakes can happen, and you may not get the desired results, but these are all learning experiences that are part of your growth. Caring for yourself could include activities like meditating, exercising, reading, and practicing positive self-talk..5,7
– Be present: focusing on what is happening in the current moment will help to avoid distractions from your future activities, allowing you to be more engaged with what is meaningful right now.
– Celebrate the small and big victories: If you complete a task, whether it’s big or small, it still equates to an achievement! So please be sure to take some time to take a break, treat yourself to your favorite meal or go out with friends. You’ve earned it! Keep up the motivation when you’re done celebrating by setting another goal and growing!
– Identify your roadblocks: confront and acknowledge whatever is holding you back. You might be surprised that something is keeping you from achieving your goals. This “something” could be a lack of skill in one area, or a quality you may not realize is the culprit.6 If you’ve worked with someone on a task before, you could ask them for their insight on how they accomplished it. You may even ask them to help you identify what you’re doing wrong if you find it helpful.
– Ask for help: it can be tricky, but don’t be afraid to rely on your support system should you need help or an extra boost. Be mindful that you surround yourself with people who care about you and your well-being. You can even ask them to check in on your plan and progress from time to time.8
Take care of your health and see yourself in a positive light!
Anand Amin, MD, OMP
NMSA International Vice-President Communications & PR