The entire process of writing a PhD dissertation is a tedious one. From thinking of your research topic, coming up with a research question, and choosing a sample, to testing that sample, selecting a research method, doing a literature review, conducting the actual research, analyzing the results, and putting it all together, all this is not easy to do.
The Importance of Stress Management During PhD Dissertation Work
Compounding the stress of writing a PhD dissertation with the stress of daily life can be overwhelming for any doctoral student. The sad reality is that stress is a huge factor in many unsuccessful PhD dissertation attempts. The fact is that successful doctoral students are those that persevere and know how to deal with stress.
Avoidance as a Stress-Coping Mechanism is All-too Common Among Doctoral Students
When you are working on your doctorate (which is a long process), life will inevitably throws throw other stressors your way. This includes stressors related to financial issues, employment, taking care of family, and daily hassles. Therefore, the easy way out for many doctoral students is simply to postpone writing their next dissertation chapter or avoid conducting their research. This is fine when it’s done in moderation, as everyone needs a little down time to maintain their stamina. If you’re not careful, avoidance can become a primary coping mechanism for your stress and you don’t want that to happen.
But how do you go about dealing with the stress? And what are the best ways to manage it?
“To answer these questions, this article will first define stress. It will then give a list of warning signs for acute stress and, finally, it will offer practical solutions to manage your stress.”
Stressors and Stress – What are They?
To use a common definition, stressors are those people, places, events, or things that put pressure on you (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). These can range from dissertation tasks and financial distress to family and other relationship pressures.
Stress, on the other hand, is internal rather than external, and is a negative physical, mental, and emotional reaction to stressors (Lovallo, 1997). For instance, having an upcoming deadline for a dissertation chapter is a potential stressor that would likely cause stress, a physiological and emotional reaction inside a person who may react with pressure, anxiety, restlessness, etc.
Early Signs of Acute Stress
There are two types of signs for acute (serious) stress: emotional and behavioral.
Emotional Signs of Stress
- Apathy, sadness, not caring
- No longer finding pleasure in activities once found so
- Anxious, easily agitated, restless
- Argumentative, irritable, defensive, angry
- Mentally lazy, difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of dealing with issues or problems
Behavioral Signs of Stress
- Behavioral avoidance, difficulty accepting things
- Neglecting normal responsibilities
- Compulsive behavior (e.g. indulging in things like overspending, sex, gambling, drugs, etc.)
- Poor caring of the self (in hygiene or appearance for example)
- Chronic tardiness and poor follow-through on tasks
- Legal and financial problems
- Aggressive impulses
Preventative Solutions to Stress Management
The best way to deal with stress is through preventative solutions allowing you to deal much more effectively with potential stressors. These solutions allow you to minimize the negative physiological traits of stress (therefore minimize psychological stress) when they arrive.
These preventative measures include:
- Structure & time management
- Support Groups
Preventing Stress: Structure & Time Management
The key to effective structure and time management is to prioritize. When you’re inundated with tasks and the simple pressures of daily life (compounded with your dissertation), it can become difficult to differentiate between what’s important and what’s not.
Here, you may want to reassess your values to analyze what’s truly important to you. Is your PhD degree more important to you than a recent relationship for example? Once you work through your priorities, you can decide what is worth your time and what’s not. Then, based on this, you can develop a time-based schedule according to your priorities.
Preventing Stress: Prayer/Meditation
It first must be mentioned that prayer and meditation work, and are proven to work in minimizing stress (Horowitz, 2010; Hussain, 2010; Ren, Huang, & Zhang, 2013; Seaward, 2009). Regarding prayer, prayer does not need to be religion-affiliated. You don’t need to believe in a religion in order to believe that a power greater than yourself could help with solving your problems. A simple conversation asking for what you want is all that is necessary sometimes.
Furthermore, meditation is an excellent way of relieving stress. The important thing about meditation is to clear your mind of all those racing thoughts. To do this depends really on the person. Some people can achieve a meditative state (a clear mind) by being in a setting with complete silence. Others can achieve a meditative state while in in natural environments with the sounds of nature surrounding them.
If you’re not sure how to meditate, choose a relatively quiet setting and focus on just one particular sound, whether it’s the birds chirping, the wind blowing, the leaves rustling, the rain dropping, or even the fan turning, whatever it may be as long as you focus intensely on it and, thus, clear your mind. When you get used to achieving these meditative states, you will be absolutely amazed at how much more clear, effective, and logical your thinking will become.
Preventing Stress: Academic Support Groups
I define an academic support group broadly; it can include any setting with your peers where the general goal is to support and help one another achieve academic goals. The power of human support is therapeutic and effective. For you, support groups could be study groups, dissertation support groups, online forums, or discussion groups. You must try to take advantage of at least one of these. If you think you’re the only one going through the stress of writing a dissertation and dealing with other particular things in your life, you’re very wrong. You will find others who have gone through similar situations and have worked through them successfully. They can provide guidance, motivation, and a host of strategies to help you through your stress.
Preventing Stress: Exercise
Yes, you may have heard it a thousand times, but exercise as a tool of stress management is way too valuable not to mention. Moreover, doctoral students working on their dissertations tend to sit very long hours doing dissertation work. So they are guilty of shunning exercise. Habitual exercise, whether this means working out, jogging, aerobics, or just plain walking, increases the amounts of endorphins in your body which elevates your mood and energizes you. In addition, and this is absolutely vital, regular exercise decreases the amounts of cortisol in your body, which is the main chemical induced by stress.
Preventing Stress: Diet and Sleep
In addition to regular exercise, diet and sleep are absolutely vital for overall well-being, but especially for stress-prevention. Regarding diet, this means you must apply the well-known maxim “you are what you eat.” If you want your body to feel like junk, then eat all the junk and fast food you want. However, if you want to feel good and feel prepared for whatever life brings at you, then snack on some fruits & vegetables, eat less fried foods, buy a bottle of vitamins and take them instead of leaving them in your kitchen cabinet. Regarding caffeinated beverages, avoid large intakes of caffeine over a stretched period of time. Otherwise, you’re at very high risk of frying your nerves and making yourself more anxious and stressful. Moderation is key.
Next, sleep health is not to be ignored. The latest research suggests that the healthiest amounts of sleep should be at least about 7 hours (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015; Watson et al., 2015). Moreover, it is important for your body’s circadian rhythm sleep around the same time every night. Also, keep in mind that oversleep is just as precarious as the lack sleep.
References Horowitz S. (2010). Health benefits of meditation: What the newest research shows. Alternative and Complementary Therapies.16:2 Hussain, D. (2010).
Psychology of meditation and health: Present status and future directions. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy. 10:439.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer Publications.
Lovallo, W. R. (1997). Stress & health: Biological and psychological interactions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Ren, J., Huang, L., & Zhang, Z. (2013). Meditation makes a peaceful state of mind: People’s positive and negative emotional response can be reduced by meditation training. Acta Psychologica Sinica, 44(10), 1339-1348. doi:10.3724/sp.j.1041.2012.01339
Seaward, B. L. (2009). Managing stress: Principles and strategies for health and well-being. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.
Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. (2015). Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep. Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Sleep. 38. 843-844,
US Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Sleep Health Objectives. Available from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep.pdf