Coping with chronic stress 101

13 Mar, 2018

Last January 25th I attended the symposium ‘Keeping sane during your PhD. What can you do? What can UU do?’ at Utrecht University (UU)*. The symposium  was organized in response to recent findings that PhD candidates at the UU and other Dutch universities have an increased risk of mental health problems, like burn-out and depression. The aim was twofold; to determine what each individual PhD candidate can do to improve their well-being (What can you do?), and what the university can do to improve the overall well-being of all PhD candidates (What can UU do?). Here I will share with you the collective wisdom in the room that day, by summarizing the presentations, highlight the main points in the plenary discussions, and sharing the written input by the 120+ attendees. The main focus of this blog will be on what each individual PhD candidate can do to improve their well-being. I will put a spotlight on chronic stress and stress management.

PhD training and chronic stress

The symposium included three presentations by specialists on the mental health of PhD candidates; researcher Dr. Inge van der Weijden, psychologist Drs. Paula Meesters , and coach Dr. Amber Davis. All three speakers agreed that PhD candidates face a high amount of stress during their training. In fact, 72% of the attendees of the symposium indicated to experience stress at least once a week!

Research  by Dr. van der Weijden showed that constant stress is the most frequently reported mental health problem amongst PhD candidates at Leiden University. Drs. Meesters and Dr. Davis emphasized that stress triggers the life survival system that overrules everything else. The life survival system is an adaptive response during an acute threat to physical health (think: tiger!), because it activates the potentially life-saving ‘fight or flight’ response (FoF). The FoF both activates the sympathetic nervous system, and increases the levels of stress hormones. After the threat has passed the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, and levels of stress hormone reduce to baseline. However, this situation is different for chronic stress. The FoF is a maladaptive response when it gets triggered by potential and chronic threats. The repetitive and chronic activation of the FoF results in an increased baseline of stress hormones. This has a negative effect on both mental and physical health, including a negative impact on work performance. Obviously, reduced work performance is in itself a stressor, which will worsen the situation.

Coping with stress

All three speakers agreed that PhD candidates need support, coping mechanisms, and tools to manage stress during their training. Chronic stress will have less of a negative effect on someone when (s)he feels in control of the situation, and trusts their ability to cope with the stress. So how can you achieve this? If you develop several coping strategies that fit with you, you are more likely to feel in control of a stressful situation. I offer you a list of varying coping strategies, based on both the presentations and the input from the attendees of the symposium. You will definitely get inspired to make some changes in your own life! Here we go…

Daily routine, including

  • Getting up and going to bed at the same time every day
  • Enough sleep, nutritional food, daily exercise
  • Daily meditation, mindfulness
  • Work in timespans that fit your attention span
  • Regular breaks (stop working before you feel tired)
  • Plan to work parts of your day without internet

Prioritize your work at the start of your workday

  • What is the most important thing today that is achievable and will help your project move forward? Focus on that.

Do not work in evenings or on weekends (on a regular basis), but instead…

  • Spend time with partner, family and friends
  • Seek out peer support by speaking with other PhD candidates, including doing fun things outside of work with your colleagues
  • Give and receive plenty of hugs

Be grateful for small advancements, give yourself credit. Research is a marathon, not a sprint!

Speaking with your supervisor

So you are ready to make changes to the way you work. You have determined which changes are important for you to get enough rest, to relax, and reduce stress. This means you will need to have a frank discussion with your supervisor before you can implement these changes. Feelings of guilt, shame or fear of rejection may make it difficult to speak with your supervisor. You might have a list in your head of all the reasons why your supervisor will not agree with the proposed changes. You might envision a thousand ways in which your supervisor will object to everything. You might even fear worsening the situation by being a ‘complainer’ and not live up to your supervisors expectations. How can you deal with this in a positive way?

Remind yourself that you are only human, and you do not need to be perfect to be worthy of a PhD degree. Interestingly, you will be more productive when your needs are met. So you can actually tell your supervisor that these changes will make you perform better at your job (not worse!). If your supervisor objects to this new way of working, stand your ground. You can reply that your goal is to keep or even increase your productivity. And you can suggest to try out this new way of working for a month, to see if it works. After the first successful month, he or she is more likely to accept your new way of working. And do not be afraid to adapt your way of working after the first month, this does not mean you have failed. There is no shame in trying out something new, and improving your approach after your first attempt. In fact, learning by doing is what research is all about!


Other resources for support

You may not want to speak with your supervisor when you are faced with a troubled relationship with him or her, or when your needs are of a more personal nature. In that case you can seek support in other ways. Think about asking a family member or friend for help, seeking out a welfare officer or confidential counsellor at the university, visiting your general practitioner, speaking with a coach or psychologist, or contacting any other external counsellor. You deserve to receive the support that you need!

Final words

To help you take your first step in the right direction, I now offer a free challenge! You will benefit from targeted and time-limited assignments, and social support, to help you reach your goal! If you would like a more personalized approach, you can consider following a full coaching program. You can always contact me for a free intake, no strings attached.

I want to leave you with these famous words, which will motivate you to implement the changes you need in your life!

“Life, allow me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”



* I thank the U-raad, PhD Network Utrecht PROUT, Utrecht PhD Party, and the Graduate School of Life Sciences at the UU for organizing the symposium.

Image by rawpixel on Pixabay

If you develop several coping strategies that fit with you, you are more likely to feel in control of a stressful situation.

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