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5 Tips to Keep Stress from Becoming Distress

By Gary Glass and Christine Pesetski

The last month of the semester is unavoidably stressful for graduate students. Stress is normal and expected, but if left unmanaged, it could turn into distress or an even more disruptive condition. Here are five tips from DukeReach and Counseling and Psychological Services to help graduate students keep their stress from becoming distress. There are also a number of professional resources on campus to help students should they need it.

1. Take care of your body

Stress is, if nothing else, a physiological phenomenon that can be managed through sleep, exercise, and a good diet. Rest will help restore your physical and mental resources; exercise will release the tension that emerges when you face challenges over a period of time; and eating and drinking well will fuel your body and mind for upcoming challenges.

2. Don’t neglect your life outside of school

Inevitably, being a graduate student demands a focus that can block out the other things in your life that matter. However, too much neglect of those other things can cost you the energy and focus to meet your academic demands. However imbalanced your time investments may be, be sure to set aside time for your other priorities: relationships (family, friends, partners), interests and passions, time for reflection or spiritual focus, and taking care of your body (as mentioned in No. 1 above).

3. Remind yourself of your long-term goals

One of the most common sources of stress is the exhaustion of working on something with no tangible results in the short term. Much of graduate school stress is related to your long-term aspirations. Keep re-assessing whether your long-term goals remain intact. Each time you do, you will renew your motivation and reduce your stress because your work is not as much a threat as it is a valued opportunity.

4. Celebrate milestones along the way

Sometimes you might get stuck in thinking that you have to do more and do it faster, and better than everyone else. This can lead you down a path that may not be helpful as you work toward your long-term goals. It is useful to acknowledge and reward yourself when you complete a portion of your work. This can give your endorphins a boost, allow you to breathe a little deeper, and provide a shift in focus that can be valuable in regenerating yourself for the next leg of the journey.

5. Allow yourself to trust

Trust in your ability to listen to the physical, emotional, and mental cues your body provides. Usually, if you are not in a reactive mindset, you can pay attention to the things you need. Also, remember that there are others you can trust. Reach out to those who care. Ask for help from your adviser or other faculty with whom you have good relationships. Remember that the administrators at The Graduate School are concerned and invested in your well-being and success, and keep in mind the resources at the university (see below). We are all here to help you.


Help on Campus

There are a number of services on campus to help students if their stress does lead to distress or an even more disruptive condition. If you are concerned about your own health, well-being, or safety, or if you are worried about another student, reach out to one of these services.

  • DukeReach is a good starting point if students are unsure where to turn for health, well-being, and safety resources on campus.
  • Counseling and Psychological Services helps students manage increasing stress or deal with situations best addressed in collaboration with a trained mental-health professional. CAPS staff members are also available to provide counsel on how to be supportive of a peer that you may be concerned about.
  • The Duke Student Wellness Center helps students focus on their individual wellness by looking at the integration of many areas of life, including financial, social, spiritual, intellectual well-being, mind-body, and the environment around them. The center provides individual services, does group outreach, and acts as consultants as well as a hub of information on wellness.
  • Student Health Services provides a wide range of health-care services, many of which are covered by the student health fee. Student Health can serve as the primary-care physician for students and also refer students to specialists within the Duke network as needed.

Gary Glass is a staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services. Christine Pesetski is the assistant dean of students at DukeReach.