Coping with Stress

Everyone experiences stress at some point in their workplace. The research enterprise is by its nature competitive. The first time some of us realize that we are stressed is when we experience physical symptoms such as dizziness, problems sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, or extreme nervousness. These symptoms which can be irritating at best and debilitating at worst are useful in that they get our attention and help us to realize that we have a problem. Managed well, stress can enhance your job performance and push you to new heights. Managed poorly it can damage your health, personal, and professional life. Consequently, it is important to develop healthy coping skills now at the outset of your professional career. In this section we’ll discuss some strategies for managing stress.

Common sources of stress in undergraduate research often include:

Time Management

Many problems that produced stress result from our failure to understand how to manage time effectively. Specific examples of potential difficulties might include an inability to accurately gauge and budget adequate time to carry out specific protocols and/or experiments, interpret data, prepare presentations, or write a thesis. For some suggestions regarding good time management strategies click here.

Personal Conflict in the Workplace

Conflict with others at work due to differences in communication styles, job expectations, etc. can be extremely stressful. It can be particularly painful if the conflict involves your research advisor. The section “Managing Your Advisor” contains specific information on how to work effectively with your research advisor.

Poor Diet, Lack of Exercise or Insufficient Sleep

Are you taking care of your physical body – eating balanced meals regularly and working out? Are you sleeping well and for a sufficient amount of time? It is no understatement to say that you are what you eat. If you aren’t eating healthy food on a regular basis then you may not have the mental acuity needed to do your research, perform optimally in the classroom, or to deal with the many problems that can arise both inside and outside of the laboratory on an average day. Be sure that you take time out to eat three healthy meals each day. Also, be sure to exercise. Exercise is a known stress reducer. Meal time and regular exercise can also be beneficial because they can provide you with breathing room and time for relaxation and reflection. Lastly, it is important to get sufficient rest. Seven to eight hours is recommended by most health professionals for adults. Too little sleep creates a state of sleep deprivation that may cause you to feel sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation is very dangerous as it can produce impaired judgment and poor hand-eye coordination that can reduce your efficiency in general and could potentially result in dangerous situations in the research laboratory. Students often turn to caffeine and other stimulants in an effort to combat the effects of sleep deprivation. Although these drugs may prove helpful in the short term in combating the effects of sleep deprivation, they can interfere with sleep and impede the recuperative effects of sleep. Be sure to approach their use with due caution.

Self-Image and Self-Confidence

To be a good researcher, you need to have a healthy self-image. You need to know your strengths and recognize your weaknesses. You need to have a realistic self-confidence in your abilities which may be tested on a daily basis depending on the type of work that you do. No one feels self-confident all the time but if you feel incompetent or like an imposter most of the time then something is wrong either with you or with your work environment. The first step is to figure out whether the problem has to do more with you and your self-view or with your work environment.

Perfectionism and Failure

Most of us want to be the very best that we can be. Too often in the process we set our personal expectations so high that it isn’t humanly possible for us to meet them. The first step is accepting imperfection in ourselves and in others – giving ourselves “permission” to fail. This can be very freeing. Once you accept that you have made a mistake it is important to learn from your mistake so that you can avoid making it again in the future. Don’t get upset by minor things. No one is perfect.

A Holistic Perspective

It is vitally important to take a holistic view to stress. Are you engaged in activities outside the classroom and the research laboratory? If not it is important to have hobbies, exercise, make time for yourself. Do you have healthy personal relationships with people outside the research laboratory? It is important to have a supportive personal support network. Normally, this is constituted of family and friends. These individuals need not be scientists and/or engineers and in fact it is probably better if they aren’t. All these people need to be are folks who know and care about you and are willing to take the time out every so often to listen to you and offer thoughtful, candid feedback.

Unhealthy Work Environment

Unhealthy working conditions can also be a source of stress. Old, poorly functioning equipment and/or instrumentation, dangerous work conditions (e.g., poor ventilation, etc.), inadequate funds to support the purchase of needed materials and/or reagents, or a poor match between project and investigator in terms of interests, expertise, and abilities area all examples of work conditions that can lead to stress. If your work environment is unhealthy, it is important to discuss the issues with your advisor so that appropriate corrective changes can be made in your workplace.

Fear of Public Speaking

It has been said that more people fear public speaking than they do death. It is normal to experience some degree of anxiety in preparing and delivering oral presentations about your work. A certain degree of anxiety can be helpful and spur you to excel. However, the prospect of delivering an oral presentation shouldn’t render you a nervous wreck each time you must do it. You can substantially decrease the level of your anxiety by learning how to prepare and deliver an effective talk. You will also find that over time as you gain experience in public speaking your self-confidence will increase while your anxiety naturally decreases. Some basic tenets of public speaking are outlined in the section entitled “Communicating Science.”

Get Professional Help If You Need It

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. If you are experiencing severe depression, are preoccupied with death, have experienced one or more major losses recently, these are warning signs of a potentially serious mental health problem. If you need help, speak to someone. It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong in seeking professional help in order to learn to deal with stress. The Counseling Services Office at your workplace or academic institution is a safe place to go if you need to speak with someone.