Managing Stress for Graduate Students

Return to Stress and Coping Strategies

Managing stress at graduate schoolI. Self-awarenessII. The stress responseIII. A model of stress reduction: taking on the Creator roleIV. Ways to relax the bodyV. Ways to relax the mindVI. Mindfulness-based stress reductionStress management resource list
Self-reflective questions

Self-reflective questions

  1. What situations are the most stressful for me as a student?
  2. How does stress affect me (physically, psychologically, etc.)?
  3. What do I do to cope with stress? Which coping mechanisms are the most/least effective for me?
  4. What other strategies and techniques would I like to try?
What is 'stress?'

What is “stress”?

A stressful situation has little to do with your emotional response. It is your appraisal of the situation and how you interpret your own body‘s response that creates your anxiety. In other words, it is your thoughts about a situation which is the critical factor in evaluating whether you ‘feel stressed.’

Common stressors affecting students

Common stressors affecting students

  • Lack of time
  • Availability of resources
  • Finances
  • Unclear expectations e.g. assignments, how to study for tests
  • For international students: language, homesickness, adjustment stress, loneliness and isolation, lack of social support
Specific stressors affecting graduate students

Specific stressors affecting graduate students

  • Scholarships: finishing thesis before scholarship money runs out Multiple and competing roles and responsibilities Communication with supervisors, colleagues
  • Unrealistic expectations e.g. thesis completion deadline
  • Heavy workload e.g. being a TA/RA while doing own research
  • Presentations: conferences, thesis defence, seminars
Common reactions to high levels of stress

Common reactions to high levels of stress

  • Distractibility, loss of focus and concentration
  • Irritability
  • Tension in the body and/or somatic illnesses
  • Avoidance/procrastination
  • Exhaustion, lethargy
  • Loss of self-confidence, self-esteem

Sadness, low mood

Multiple life stressors

Multiple life stressors

Research has shown that stressful life events can lead to serious mental health issues such as depression. Students can be at risk as their lives are very complicated and pressured. Be aware of your stressors and how they are impacting you. Attend to your stressors when you feel that your mood is being adversely affected. For international students, life stress is an important factor in cultural adjustment that is moderately related to the development of mental illness.  If adjusting to Queen‘s and Canadian society is causing you emotional hardship, consider consulting the cross-cultural counsellor at Queen’s Counselling Service or at Queen’s University International Centre.

Overview of module content

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. The Stress Response
  3. A Model of Stress Reduction
  4. Body Relaxation Strategies
  5. Mind Relaxation Strategies
  6. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

We have also included additional information and hands-on tools at the end of the module.


Brown, G. W., Bifulco, A., & Harris, T. O. (1987). Life event, vulnerability, and onset of depression: Some refinements. British Journal of Psychiatry, 150, 30-42.

Bulmash, E. L. (2007). Personality, stressful life events, and treatment response in major depression. Master‘s Thesis. Queen‘s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Yang, B. & Clum, G.S. (1994). Life stress, social support, and problem-solving skills predictive of depressive symptoms, hopelessness, and suicide ideation in an Asian student population: A test of a model. Suicide & Life-Threathening Behaviour, 24(2). 127.

Self-reflection questions

Self-reflection questions

  • How stressed do I feel right now?
  • How does stress manifest in my body?
  • I am dealing well with my life stress? Why/ why not?
  • What coping mechanisms do I have/ use to manage stressful situations?

The first step to managing your stress is to understand what part it plays in your life.

How stressed am I? Take a stress test.

How stressed am I? Take a stress test.

Several organizations offer versions of a stress test. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) offers one good stress test. For more information about stress from CMHA, see the CMHA stress website.

My stress symptoms

My stress symptoms

Over the next few days, observe your body‘s physical reaction to stress. Notice subtle signals you might have overlooked before. Ask friends or family what they notice when you‘re stressed: do they notice signs you haven‘t?

Self-care checklist

Self-care checklist

Taking care of oneself is fundamental to a happy, healthy, low stress life. Assess your level of self-care using the tool How Well Am I Taking Care of Myself?

Tension diary

Tension diary

Become aware of what increases your stress and any strategies you use to help decrease your stress. Monitor your stress by using the Tension Diary.

How our body responds to stress

How our body responds to stress

After thousands of years of human evolution, our bodies still respond to stress in the same way as our ancestors. During the stress response, also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, your nervous system is turned on (see symptoms in Figure 1 below) releasing stress hormones and preparing for battle or escape. Meanwhile, your immune and digestive systems and your cognitive processes slow down. Conversely, during the relaxation response your nervous system slows down so you are able to think more clearly and creatively. Your immune and digestive systems function better.

Although we still need both responses for human survival, the historical value of the stress response (e.g. when the tiger is at your cave door, you either run or slug it over the head with your club) no longer applies. Our modern stressors – academic, workplace, and relationships – do not allow us to release tension through physical action and the stress builds up. With prolonged exposure to stress hormones, it is the stress response itself that causes damage to the body. The good news is that the stress response and the relaxation response are opposite and mutually exclusive. That means if you induce the relaxation response, your stress response will be shut off.

Figure One: Symptoms of Stress versus Relaxation Response

Prolonged stress is BAD NEWS!

  • More susceptible to illnesses
  • Irritability, exhaustion and burn-out
  • Can lead to depressed mood

Taking on the Creator Role

Figure 2 below describes two differences responses to the same stimulus: one negative (The Victim), the other positive (The Creator). The former response may increase stress while the latter response may reduce stress. Because the Creator chooses a problem-solving, action based solution, he/she feels more in control and, therefore, less stressed.

Figure 2: Adopting the Creator Role of Stress Reduction


  • Believe they create everything in their lives
  • Accept responsibility for creating one‘s own results
  • Responsibility = making choice
  • Make choices to influence the outcomes of their lives

Figure 3 demonstrates how someone who takes on a Creator role reduces stress. Firstly, he/she asks whether this problem can be solved or not. If yes, the Creator gets on with the business of working through the problem. Engaging the mind in solving the problem overshadows the worries and fear which, in turn, helps the mind relax. However, even during problem-solving there might be some residual stress that needs attention and this is where having good stress management strategies can help. If you have little or no control over the stress-provoking situation, a Creator accepts the way things are at present while continuing to use stress management techniques and positive thinking.

Figure 3: Can I do something about the stress provoking situation?

Problem-Solving: What do I need to do to change this situation?

Acceptance: How can I learn to accept that some things cannot be changed now or maybe ever?

Stress Reduction: What techniques and strategies can I use to reduce and cope with stress?

Adaptation: What positive attitudes and behaviours do I need to prepare for future events?

Stress and anxiety management

Stress and anxiety management strategies

For the greatest de-stressing effect, relax both your body and your mind! See 10 Ways to Relax.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is one of the best techniques for relieving stress. When you‘re under stress, your muscles tense and your breathing gets shallow and rapid as you breathe higher in the chest. You can stop this stress response by breathing deeply and slowly from the diaphragm or abdomen. It sounds simple and IT IS! Follow the steps in our tool Take a Deep Breath and Relax!

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) increases your awareness of body tension versus relaxation and is a tool to induce a relaxed state. During PMR you tense then relax targeted muscle groups. The tensing and relaxing over 3-5 repetitions slowly forces the muscles into a state of relaxation. Imagine gently pulling a fresh elastic band until it‘s taut and then releasing it. It starts out very stiff and hard to pull; however, after several stretches the elastic becomes more pliable and elongates. This is what happens when you employ PMR to your tense muscles. Read Progressive Muscle Relaxation.



Graduate students tend to sit a great deal during the day, reading and writing. Muscles, especially the neck, shoulders, and lower back can take a beating. Combine stress with this sedentary picture and you have a recipe for muscle tension. It‘s good to take many mini power breaks of 5-10 minutes throughout the day to stretch out.

Yoga is also an excellent way to learn how to combine stretching (postures or asanas) with breathing for full body relaxation. Yoga classes are offered at Queen‘s University, the YMCA of Kingston, and at many private yoga studios throughout the city.

See Do-anywhere Stretching Exercises for some easy stretching exercises, many of which you can do in your office, lab, or library.

For more exercises, see Whole Fitness.



Close your eyes and visualize a serene, comforting place e.g. a beach, a forest. Use all your senses to savour this place: what do you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel?  Prepared scripts are fine, but it‘s more powerful to use your own imagery which has meaning to you. For a prepared visualization, see Visualization: Springtime in the Forest.

Guilt-free play

Guilt-free play

Little kids know how to relax—they play. Adults who take time for guilt-free play on a regular basis are happier, more energetic, have better interpersonal relationships, etc. Workaholics, on the other hand, can suffer from burn-out, become resentful, and have less time to nurture friendships and family ties. Grad students can sometimes get into a workaholic rut, especially when large deadlines loom. At these times more than ever, you need to schedule ‘play’ into your week. Play helps you clear your head and allows ideas to percolate in the background which is important when you are working on complex, complicated projects. Play leads to higher levels of quality and creative work. So, get out there and PLAY today!

Suggested Resource: Neil Fiore‘s 2007 edition of The NOW Habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play.



Music can relax and heal, particularly serene, soothing music. There are many free music streaming services on the internet, or you can buy music online or at a CD store. Try searching for “relaxation music.”



Laughing releases endorphins, the ‘feel-good’ hormones. So watch a funny movie or share a joke. Changing a frown into a smile, even when you don‘t feel like it, can improve your mood.


Get a good night's sleep

Get a good night’s sleep

What if I‘m wound up just before bedtime?

  • Take a warm bath.
  • Count sheep! Slow, repetitive cycles of counting can calm your mind and body. Drink warm milk or calming teas (milk contains an enzyme that makes you sleepy).
  • Stop studying at least one hour before bedtime (but you can read a book for pleasure).
  • Turn off electronic equipment a couple hours before bedtime. The electro-magnetic waves from computers, etc. stimulate your brain, not help it relax.
  • Do gentle stretches, breathing, and/or meditation. Have a light, low-fat snack.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes.
  • Develop a regular sleep-wake routine so your body anticipates your cycle.

See 12 Rules for Better Sleep.

1. Reframing negative thoughts

1. Reframing negative thoughts


We all have a voice in our head that talks to us. This ‘self-talk’ includes the internal dialogues or silent conversations that go on within our minds most of the time and can be either positive, negative, or neutral. These dialogues often create self-fulfilling prophesies. For example, if you tell yourself you are relaxed and happy, we will start to feel better. In turn, if you continuously tell yourself you are stressed out, you will feel frazzled. In other words, we create our own stress! Some people don‘t like to face this truth; they prefer to blame their feelings on the external world (e.g. my boss/spouse/kid/etc. makes me feel…my job is so awful/ boring/ unfulfilling etc.).

See How Self Talk Affects Stress and Identifying Your Stress-Inducing Self Talk.


The good news is that we can reframe negative thoughts into more positive, helpful ones. For most of us, our minds won‘t readily accept a new, positive thought, especially if the existing negative thought is well entrenched. So we need to design meaningful thoughts and practice them regularly until the new thought becomes the norm. Here are a few suggestions to guide you:

  1. Affirmations/mantras

Create a positive affirmation or mantra of the new thought, post it somewhere very visible, and repeat it many times until your mind starts to ‘buy into’ the reframed thought. For example, imagine you‘ve been telling yourself that your dissertation is just too big for you to manage and you‘ll never finish on time. The outcome is that you start to feel overwhelmed, procrastinate, and avoid using effective time management. Instead, try saying: “I can take one small step each day” or “I am capable of completing this task well.” Repeat this statement as a mantra.

  1. Thought Record

Developed by psychologists Dennis Greenberger and Christina Padesky, the Thought Record helps you identify problematic thoughts or images, assess the veracity of the thought, and develop a more adaptive, balanced thought. The Thought Record has proven over the course of time to be a very powerful tool in helping people reframe negative thoughts and improve mood.

See Using a Thought Record.

2. Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)

2. Stress Inoculation Training (SIT): Imagery, relaxation, and using coping statements

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) was developed by psychologist Donald Meichenbaum in 1977. While other stress reduction programs aimed at mastering anxiety, Meichenbaum felt that being anxiety-free is unrealistic; anxiety can creep back in over time or new anxieties can form. Instead, he taught people how to cope with their anxiety, anywhere, anytime. SIT involves learning how to relax deeply and use coping thoughts as you visualize anxiety-provoking scenarios, starting from your least stressful scenarios and working up a hierarchy to your most feared. In traditional SIT the client would stick with the stressful situation no matter how unpleasant. However, in recent years Meichenbaum‘s technique has been modified so that people can shut the scene off if their anxiety goes too high (see The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 1995). It is the combination of relaxation and coping thoughts which makes this technique most effective.

For a full description of the SIT procedure, a list of coping statements, and an example, see Stress Inoculation Procedure.

3. Imagining new behaviour

3. Imagining new behaviour

We can all learn a new pattern of thinking or behaviour by observing and imitating others. Ideally, try to find a good role model who effectively manages life‘s stressors. Is there someone in your department who, although he/she has so much to do, always seems to be calm and in control? Ask what strategies he/she uses. Try testing these strategies in your own life.

“Covert” modelling

Unfortunately, good models are sometimes hard to find. A technique called ‘covert modelling’ involves imagining yourself as a model of stress management. Once you can SEE yourself relaxing and being in control in your mind, you will be able to translate this into real life behaviour.  Due to its unfamiliarity, you might find this difficult and awkward at first, so start with an easy scenario and work up to the really difficult ones. For example, if meeting your supervisor face-to-face causes huge anxiety, then start by imagining yourself calmly interacting with the supervisor over the phone.

4. Acceptance

4. Acceptance

When we can‘t change our situation, learning to let go will reduce your stress considerably. The serenity prayer encapsulates the wisdom of acceptance:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference.

See Ways to Accept.

What is mindfulness?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is bringing our full attention to the present. Mindfulness is observing the mind‘s thoughts and emotions in a detached and non-judgmental way in the fullness of the moment. The goal of mindfulness is to be more aware of our automatic and destructive responses so that we can make conscious choices. Mindfulness encapsulates the principles of non-judging, non- striving, patience, acceptance, letting go, trust, and having a beginner‘s mind. Many cultures and religions practice forms of mindfulness through meditation and prayer.

To help you be more mindful when communicating with others ask: “Am I defending myself or am I actually listening to what they are saying?” This question keeps us in the moment and reflecting on what is going on instead of reacting to our emotions and what we are telling ourselves is happening.


  • Mindfulness: Focusing and Awareness
  • Mindfulness Exercises
  • Riding Out Your Emotion: Worry-Surfing
  • Mindful Walking
  • Focusing on an Object: Eating a Craisin
What is Mindfulness-based stress reduction?

What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for patients suffering from pain. MBSR teaches individuals the principles of mindfulness and how to apply them to deal more effectively with stress, pain, illness, psychological distress and the demands of daily life. It teaches participants to respond to stressful situations “mindfully”. MSRB has been extensively researched and found to be a helpful adjunct to conventional treatments for a variety of medical and psychological conditions, particularly anxiety, stress, depression, pain and weight management.

For a scientist’s research paper on the positive effects of MBSR:

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.

MBSR Training Program

MBSR Training Program

An 8-9 week program, MBSR training teaches mindfulness through breathing, body awareness exercises, sitting and walking meditation, and gentle yoga. The MBSR program is offered in many hospitals in the Toronto area. There are also lots of private practitioners offering the program throughout Ontario. “Mindful eating” is one of the latest additions to MBSR training, offering a non-diet way to lose weight.

Websites, books, journals, and mindfulness-specific resources

Stress management resource list

Counsellors at Queen’s University Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) recently created a self-help workbook entitled Your Best You: Improving Your Mood specifically for Queen’s students experiencing low mood.

You can download it for free by accessing the Student Wellness Services website, or you can pay a small fee for a print copy.

Websites Links between stress and your health.

Holistic Online. Information on stress and in depth strategies for coping with stress including alternative therapies.


David Posen, MD. Key Porter Books Ltd, Toronto. The Little Book of Stress Relief  (2003) and Staying Afloat When the Water Gets Rough (1998)

Mind over Mood by Dennis Greenberger & Christine Padesky (1995). Includes many hands-on exercises and tools including the ‘Thought Record’.

The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by M. Davis, E. Eshelman, & M. McKay. Now in its 5th edition (2000) this is still one of the best self-help books around.

Stress Less: Break the Power of Worry, Fear And Other Unhealthy Habits by Don Colbert, MD (2008). Latest information on the effects of stress on your body and ways to help you de-stress.

The Stress of Life by Hans Selye. The father of stress theory, Selye explains the medical effects of stress in his seminal work.

Resources on mindfulness

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, outlines how to use ‘mindfulness meditation’ to reduce stress in the following books:

  • Full Catastrophe Living Using The Wisdom Of Your Body And Mind To Face Stress, Pain, And Illness (1991)
  • Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in everyday life (1995)
  • The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by Forsyth, J.P. & Eifert, G.H. (2007). Great self-directed book filled with practical exercises and a CD with scripted meditations.

Also see the Centre for Mindfulness (site uses Flash),, and Mindfulness Meditation.

There are many others, too!

Journal articles

Brown, K.W., Ryan, R.M., Creswell, J.D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry. 18(4). 211-237

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57, 35-43.