Graduate School Stress and Stress Management

By Julie Griffith posted 12-09-2021 13:44


This blog was crafted by the Communications Subcommittee of the Graduate Student Leadership Committee.


Stress is something many of us have experienced, and it affects everyone differently. Symptoms of stress include being easily distracted, difficulty concentrating, irritability, feeling down or anxious, increased or decreased energy, body tension, restlessness, headaches, sleeping difficulty, isolation, or being argumentative/combative.1 In 2018, the American College Health Association released a study of 12,569 graduate/professional students that found that a combined 62.5% of participants reported “more than average stress” or “tremendous stress.”2 Since COVID-19, the cases of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders have soared; a survey by the University of California Berkley found that “the prevalence of major depressive disorder among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019.”3 If chronic stress is left untreated, it has been shown to result in anxiety or depression.4,5

Now that we know the signs of stress, the occurrence of it in graduate students, and how it can lead to other mental health problems, we will look at ways of coping with stress.

Stress Management

Since everyone handles stress a little differently, there are a variety of ways that have been developed to help reduce reactions to stressful situations:

  • Be observant and aware of the symptoms of negative stress that you present. Learn to support yourself during stressful times, take breaks, and spend time doing a relaxing activity.6 This can include trying a physical activity, elevating your perspective on the stressor, or engaging in a fun and pleasurable activity you enjoy.
  • Time management is a major component when considering graduate school and the amount of projects, classwork, teaching, and research we do. Combat procrastination by breaking down projects into smaller pieces to make a large task more manageable.
  • Relax your mind and body. Practice deep, slow breathing and muscle relaxation or any soothing action. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. While relaxing, visualize your favorite place and try to picture it in detail. Sit quietly with your eyes closed, and then with your eyes open. If distracting thoughts occur, try not to dwell on them.6
  • Seek social support. Peers and classmates are resources at your fingertips. This easily accessible community provides empathy and emotional support, for both yourself and your peers. You both may be able to provide practical tips to deal with graduate schoolwork and relationships. Reach out to more senior graduate students to help navigate upcoming obstacles, like qualifying exams or grant applications. Other sources of social support include friends, family, mentors, or spiritual/religious leaders.

The impact of stressors is different for everyone; I hope these tips are helpful. If not, or if you find that your stress is significantly affecting your daily life for multiple consecutive days, you might consider contacting a health care provider. Another avenue would be to contact on-campus services to help with techniques personalized to you or to direct you toward counseling services.


1Korte, K.J., C.A. Denckla, A.A. Ametag, and K.C. Koenen. n.d. “Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Individuals and Communities.” Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

2American College Health Association. 2018. Graduate/Professional Student Reference Group: Executive Summary—Spring 2018.

3Chrikov, Igor, Krista M. Soria, Bonnie Horgos, and Daniel Jones-White. 2020. “Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” SERU Consortium, University of California-Berkeley and University of Minnesota.

4Khan, Sarah, and Rafeeq Alam Khan. 2017. “Chronic Stress Leads to Anxiety and Depression.” Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health 5, no. 1: 1091.

5National Institute of Mental Health. n.d. “5 Things You Should Know About Stress.” NIH Publication No. 19-MH-8109.

6University of California Davis Student Health and Counseling Services. n.d. “Overview of Stress.”