Controlling Graduate School Stress: Introduction

As graduate students we experience some level of stress almost all the time. We are called upon to finish final reports, deliver great presentations, and thrive in our practicum settings all while trying to maintain relationships with our family and friends.

While we cannot remove the stressful events from our lives, we can adjust the way we react to these events. We will be able to perform at a more productive level and feel better about ourselves if we can bring high levels of stress to a more manageable level.

Are you vulnerable to stress?
Certain aspects of our habits, our lifestyles, and our environments can make each of us more or less vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. How vulnerable are YOU to stress?

Take the 20-Questions Vulnerability to Stress Quiz

If current and/or past stresses are affecting your quality of life and you would like more assistance, please feel free to contact the Psychological Services Center for referral information.


Benson, H. (1975). The Relaxation Response. New York, New York: Harper.

Girdano, D.A, Dusek, D.E., & Everly, G.S. (2005). Controlling Stress and Tension. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York, New York: Random House.

Stressors are events (real or imagined) or conditions in our lives that cause us to experience stress. They can be positive or negative life events that are physical, emotional, intellectual, social, economic, or spiritual in nature.

Human relationships are life’s greatest stressors, even for high pressure graduate students. Despite all the work required by graduate students, many times the hardest parts of our lives involve relationships with our loved ones.

Listed below are some stressors taken from Drs. Holmes and Rahe’s social readjustment scale, that we may experience during our time in graduate school:

  • Death of close family member
  • Personal injury or illness
  • Marriage
  • Change in health of family member
  • Pregnancy
  • Gain of new family member
  • Change in financial state
  • Death of close friend
  • Change to different line of work
  • Change in responsibilities at work
  • Outstanding personal achievement
  • Begin or end school
  • Change in work hours
  • Change in residence
  • Change in social activities
  • Change in sleeping habits

Stress Response

The stress response is the body’s natural physical reaction to our environment that helps us to survive danger.

Most of our present day stressors are not physical in nature, yet our reaction to these events is a physical activation of our body. Example: Sitting in traffic causes our muscles to tense, our heart rate to increase, and our face to become flushed.

Even after the immediate removal of the stressor, our bodies stay activated until we are able to counteract the stress response and bring ourselves back to baseline.

Stress is intended to activate the body so we can perform at a higher level. However, stress becomes dangerous when we experience it for prolonged periods of time or in excessive quantities.

Positive and Negative Effects of Stress

Stress is not always bad; a healthy amount of stress can be good for us. Problems can arise when we don’t experience enough stress or when we experience too much stress.

2 Types of Stress

Eustress: A level of stress that has a positive effect on our body and our ability to perform.

  • Eustress causes us to adapt to the stressors without causing psychological and physical discomfort.
  • It is not debilitating and instead motivates us to complete the final paper, treat a difficult client, etc.

Distress: An excessive amount and/or a prolonged period of stress that disrupts our ability to manage our arousal and leads to physical and emotional problems.

  • Distress can cause poor concentration, memory loss, performance anxiety, headaches, immune system complications, and other health concerns. Distress is the culprit when we get sick at the end of the semester.
  • Burnout is also common in unmanaged distress.
Graph of Stress

When we perceive or experience a stressor our whole body is affected; some areas become activated and others shut down. The part of our brain called the Hypothalamus first responds to the stressor and sends the signal to arouse the body. From here the stress response can take 3 different pathways to activate certain areas necessary to fight off the threat.

  1. Neural Axes  Stress response moves directly to the target organs
    1. Neuromuscular: Grinding teeth
    2. Sympathetic Nervous System: Fight or Flight Response When activated, the SNS increases our heart rate, decreases salivary secretion, dilates pupils, and constricts blood vessels.
      • Example: When giving a presentation many of us experience the feeling of our heart pounding in chest and our mouths become extremely dry.
    3. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): When activated our body functions decrease to a baseline level of functioning.
      • Results in heart rate slowing down, salivary secretion increasing, and pupils constricting.
  2. Neuroendocrine Axis (Fight or Flight Response/SNS) ; Stress response goes to Adrenal Medulla first and then to target organ. This results in a 20-30 second delay but the effects last 10x longer than if the stress response goes directly to organs.
    1. Adrenalin released by Adrenal Medulla: Increased muscle tension
    2. Noradrenalin released Adrenal Medulla: Increased vasoconstriction’Increased blood pressure
  3. Endocrine Axes- Stress response goes directly to circulatory system.
    1. Cortisol (The Stress Hormone) released- Loss of appetite and increased availability of energy
    2. Aldosterone released- Increased availability of water supply

Signs that we may be experiencing too much stress in our life:

  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Fatigue
  • Grinding teeth
  • Crying
  • Irritability
  • Stomach aches/pains
  • Lack of concentration
  • Difficulty remembering important information
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Constant nervousness
  • Decreased sense of humor
  • Anger

Poor ways we cope with excessive stress:

  • Remove ourselves from the support of friends and family.
  • Ignore the importance of sleep, exercise and healthy eating.
  • Use excessive amounts of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and caffeine.
  • Ignore the importance of personal time away from work and school.

Beneficial ways of managing stress

The goal of stress management is to reduce the excessive levels of stress that interfere with our ability to perform at our peak performance.

Emotional Support

Spending time with loved ones can be a great way to remove ourselves from the chaos of school work or practicum. Keep your family and friends in your life and share your accomplishments as well as your struggles with them. The love and support they can provide you cannot be replaced by any other stress reliever.


If you have a religious affiliation or sense of spirituality it is important to keep your faith in your daily life. Maintaining faith in something more powerful than yourself can provide you with a sense of peace during both the good times and the bad times.


Most people need between 6-8 hours of sleep every night to perform at their best. While some may need less and some may need more, it is important to know what you personally need. Also try to keep to a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible. Even with the same amount of sleep per night, varying between late and early nights can increase fatigue and decrease performance.


Not only can we feel the physical effects of going for a run, lifting weights or practicing yoga, but exercise can have a strong effect on our moods. Exercise can increase our concentration, provide a sense of accomplishment, and improve our sense of well-being. Stress exists to help us survive physical threats, so physical activity is an easy way to counteract the stress response. Any type of exercise that elevates our heart rate will provide positive results.


Allow yourself to engage in the enjoyable activities that are not work or school related. This could be watching your favorite television show, playing pick up basketball, or reading for your own pleasure. If you don’t give yourself personal time, you are setting yourself up for future stress.

Performing relaxation exercises counteracts the stress response and brings our body back to a calm and regulated level of arousal. Relaxation training helps us increase our mood, concentration, memory and our energy level. Experts suggest that we should perform relaxation exercises for at least 10 minutes a day. The everyday practice provides a more cumulative effect rather than just a temporary state of relaxation. Relaxation training can be done wherever and whenever it is convenient: in bed before sleep, in the parking lot before practicum, in an empty class before school, etc.

Most exercises listed below will provide the most benefit when you can give yourself 10 minutes of undisturbed, quiet, relaxation. When you can’t take time away and still need to relax for a minute, try the more portable exercises below. These are quick and provide immediate relaxation.

Not only will you be more comfortable with each exercise the more you practice, but your body will learn how to react more and more quickly. Depending on how much time you can allow yourself, choose the appropriate exercise and RELAX!

During your busy day try these portable techniques:

Diaphragmatic Breathing

  1. Put your hands over your belly button and image there is a pouch in your stomach lying beneath your belly button.
  2. Inhale for 2-3 seconds and imagine the pouch slowly filling up with air.
  3. After inhaling, hold your breath and say to yourself My body is calm.
  4. Slowly exhale and repeat the phrase My body is quiet. Imagine the pouch slowly emptying during the 2-3 exhale.
  5. Do 4-5 inhales/exhales at one sitting but remember to go at a slow and comfortable pace.

This exercise can be done when waiting in line, moments before a big presentation, while stuck in traffic, before walking into work, etc.

Walking Mediation ; Involves concentrating on a certain sensation of the walking movement to slow down our minds and allow ourselves to live in the present.

  1. Pick a particular part of the walk such as the sensation of the feet hitting the ground, the feeling of our arms swinging, or the feeling of our breath entering and leaving the body.
  2. Keep your gaze directed out in front of you and refrain from looking around at your surroundings. This helps us maintain our concentration.
  3. When the mind wanders away from the walking sensations, acknowledge the thought and gently bring your concentration back to the feeling of the walk.

When you can allow yourself 10 minutes of peace:

Passive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Find a comfortable position either sitting or lying down and close your eyes.
  2. Take a few deep breaths and tune into your body to find any areas that are painful or tense. Take an extra minute or two on these areas when doing the exercise.
  3. Imagine a wave of relaxation descending from your head, slowly down to your neck, and eventually down to your feet. Focus all your attention on the muscle groups and imagine them becoming warm and then totally relaxed. Once the muscle group feels relaxed, image the relaxation slowly move down your body and onto the next muscle group.
  4. Once you have worked your way slowly down to your feet and your whole body is completely relaxed, simply sit quietly for a minute. Acknowledge the great feeling and repeat to yourself I am relaxed, I am relaxed.

Visual Imagery

  1. Think of a place that brings you complete comfort and happiness. This could be a beach, a mountain, or your favorite place to read; anywhere specific to you that you would love to be.
  2. Close your eyes and imagine yourself driving, flying, or walking to your destination.
  3. When you finally get there, simply be present with your surroundings. Fill every detail of the situation with your mind, including the smells, sounds, sights, tastes and how great it feels to be there.
  4. After a few minutes or when you are ready to return, count from 1 to 10 and slowly reintegrate yourself to the world around you. Take a minute once you have brought yourself back before standing up and resuming your activities.

Transcendental Meditation

  1. Find a quiet location where you can sit undisturbed.
  2. Choose a word, phrase, or prayer that has personal meaning to you. If you are having trouble finding a phrase, Om or the English translation One are popular and are recommended. Each time you exhale, repeat this phrase to yourself as a way to minimize distracting thoughts.
  3. Get comfortable and close your eyes.
  4. When distracting thoughts do come into your conscious, say to yourself Oh, well, and bring your attention back to the repetition of your phrase.

Final Comments

This page is intended to provide graduate students with some helpful tips for reducing moderate discomfort that comes with our daily lives. It is not intended to replace any sort of psychological treatment. Depression, anxiety, and other emotional concerns are very common in higher education settings. If you have been experiencing intense or upsetting emotions recently we encourage you to talk to someone close to you. Advisors, professors, as well as fellow classmates, will help you locate a professional who can help you feel better.