Stress, anxiety, and learning to cope

Dear Alice,

I am a graduate student, doing very well in my coursework and research. However, I feel extreme anxiety in doing anything, e.g., starting a problem set, writing a program, etc. I wonder, what are the common causes of anxiety and what I may be suffering from. I would like to be calm and relaxed and not anxious and stressed. I know about meditations, etc., but what I would really like is some psychological insight.

Anxiously Awaiting

Dear Anxiously Awaiting, 

Many people feel apprehensive now and again. Whether it’s the stress of meeting a deadline at work or the anticipation of an upcoming test, there are many hurdles to navigate in life. While it’s common to experience some tension in response to stressful situations, when these feelings linger and begin to interfere with your daily life, it may be the result of something larger, like anxiety. 

Sometimes when speaking about stress and anxiety, they’re used interchangeably, however they’re actually distinct experiences. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by frequent and intense feelings of worry that are hard to shake and may not be tied to anything specific. There’s also social anxiety disorder which manifests in response to particular activities or situations, such as a phobia (fear) or life responsibilities. Stress, on the other hand, is a natural physical and emotional response to an external cause. Stress can be experienced in short bursts in relation to the cause or more long-term in response to prolonged or persistent external causes—the latter is often referred to as chronic stress. 

While stress and anxiety are separate experiences, studies show that chronic stress is linked to anxiety disorders in many cases. This is because changes can occur in the structure of your brain as you experience prolonged stress. These changes can potentially lead to behavioral, emotional, or cognitive dysfunction which increases the risk of mental health disorders. In either case, these feelings can be frustrating and may disrupt daily activities, impacting overall well-being. 

As a student, there may be things in your life that can cause stress which may then snowball into anxiety, including: 

  • Academic pressure. The demands of school can be stressful, especially as a graduate student. Many graduate students report experiencing imposter syndrome, in which they feel they're not good enough, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and anxiety. Consequently, this can cause procrastination, driven by the fear of not meeting high expectations, which can also contribute to a cycle of stress and anxiety. 
  • Financial Issues. Financial instability is a frequent reality for students, particularly graduate students, characterized by circumstances such as inadequate savings, credit card debt, lack of income, or overdrawn accounts. These financial challenges can cause stress, pressure, and additional anxiety by having to simultaneously deal with the burden of managing expenses and academics. It may also limit their ability to participate in certain activities, like social outings with friends, that can further impact mental health. 
  • Work-life balance. Balancing a social life with family, friends, or partner can be difficult on top of work-related and academic responsibilities you face in school. 
  • Perfectionism. Studies have shown that those who have an anxiety disorder may be at additional risk for perfectionism, which involves setting exceedingly high standards for yourself to achieve being a “perfect” person. This can often lead to feeling defeated when you don’t achieve things the way you planned or cause you to put off tasks due to fear of failure, which may lead to an underlying sense of anxiety with everything you do. 
  • Health Issues. Both physical and mental health play an important role in academic success. When feeling stressed, it can be difficult to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. It might feel as if self-care only adds to an already lengthy to-do list. However, it’s precisely during these overwhelming moments that taking care of yourself, like being physically active, eating nutritious meals, or taking breaks, can alleviate stress and anxiety rather than contribute to it. 

While these are just some of the things that can cause students to feel stressed, people may have other common causes of anxiety. For people with anxiety, the body tends to find seemingly regular situations more threatening. This feeling can lead to more frequent and intense physical reactions. Some anxiety exists as a form of protection through the “fight or flight” response to a perceived danger or threat. It’s been noted that GAD can lead to a heightened response to daily worries, concern about worst-case scenarios, indecisiveness, and difficulty concentrating. Anxiety more generally can also lead to physical symptoms such as stomach upset, drowsiness, sweating, sleep disruption, agitation, changes in appetite, and lower energy levels. 

You may consider speaking with a mental health professional or psychologist about what you’re experiencing, as they may be able to recommend a course of treatment or offer stress reduction strategies to help ease your worries. Luckily, there are many treatment options available that may be able to offer some resolution. These treatments include behavioral therapy, medication, support groups, mindfulness, cognitive therapy, relaxation techniques, and more. Additionally, Go Ask Alice! has a factsheet on Stress: The Basics that goes into more detail about stress and strategies to manage it before it manifests into anxiety. You can also check out the Stress & Anxiety category in the Go Ask Alice! archives. 

Additionally, consider asking yourself the following questions to better understand why or when you may be experiencing these feelings. If you choose to meet with a mental health professional, it may be helpful to discuss your answers to some of these questions with them. Doing so can help them better assist you in finding coping techniques or suggesting an appropriate treatment method. 

  • Do you find that the stress originates from the task itself? 
  • Do you feel as if you’re neglecting one task when you focus on another? 
  • Does having to complete the task feel overwhelming? 
  • Could uncertainty about how to start the project be leading you to avoid completing it? 
  • Are you holding yourself to exceptionally high standards when it comes to completing the task? 
  • Are you worried about failing? How might that be influencing your feelings? 

Feeling stressed and overwhelmed is a common experience no matter your stage in life. You’ve already taken a great first step by acknowledging that they exist and exploring possible sources! With these tips, hopefully you’ll be on the path to a calmer graduate school experience.   

Last updated Oct 20, 2023
Originally published Nov 01, 1994