Managing Anxiety and Depression as a Grad Student

A recent Harvard study concluded that graduate students are three times more likely than the typical American to struggle with anxiety and depression. Another study published in Nature Biotechnology (March 2018) found that 39% of the graduate students surveyed were living with depression, as compared to approximately 6% of the general population. Although these seemingly high rates of anxiety and depression were reported among graduate students, the results of the study indicated that these rates were, in many cases, situational. Many of the graduate students who reported suffering from anxiety and depression also reported a poor work-life balance.

Stress and anxiety are a normal and expected part of graduate school. Just to be clear, graduate school is hard, and academically speaking, it is supposed to be! The stresses associated with graduate school aren’t always bad though. Stress can help you succeed. If you are able to identify your stress and its triggers, you can deploy action-oriented strategies to convert your anxiety into outcomes. However, if your stress is left unmanaged, it can quickly develop into distress, or an even more serious medical condition.

As a graduate student, there are several ways you can make adjustments to your life that will increase your chances of successfully completing your studies.

Educate yourself

Since moderate anxiety is an expected component of graduate student life, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself occasionally feeling nervous, restless or tense. During “finals” week or when you are preparing to do a big presentation, some anxiety is normal and can even keep you alert and focused, leading to a higher level of performance.

Those initial feelings of anxiety sometimes increase and become debilitating. You may find yourself experiencing feelings of impending danger, panic or doom. Some other more extreme effects of anxiety may be an increase in heart rate with rapid breathing, sweating and trembling. You may begin to feel tired or weak, have difficulty concentrating. You may have difficulty sleeping, you may develop gastrointestinal problems, and be tempted to completely avoid things that trigger anxiety. These are all signs that your anxiety is getting out of control and you will need to get professional help to manage it.

Be prepared

It is critical to understand that the decision you made to further your education was not a small, insignificant one, but one that has its fair share of challenges. Graduate schoolwork is difficult and plentiful! The sacrifices you will have to make are substantial, and you will need to be prepared to make them for a long time.

Give yourself a break

Graduate students have a lot of commitments and expectations. However, only some of them are obligatory. Trying to “do-it-all” will undoubtedly lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Remember, you are also obligated to take care of yourself. That may mean forgoing an activity or event for no other reason than self-protection. Sometimes, prioritizing activities can be challenging. One approach is to weigh the pros and cons of participating in something versus missing it. Self, first and family next, are usually smart choices that have long-lasting positive outcomes.

Rediscover what inspires you

Most students choose graduate school in response to their desire to know more about their chosen areas of study. Unfortunately, the stresses and strains of the “process” sometimes cause them to lose sight of these motivators when the “going gets tough”. Thus, the importance of regularly reminding yourself of why you entered graduate school.

Plan ahead

Time management both maximizes your productivity and minimizes stress and anxiety. Making to-do lists, keeping a calendar, getting organized, and prioritizing tasks are all useful time management tasks. However, not all time management methods work for everyone. Keep trying new approaches until you find one or more that’s a good fit, and when you do, use them!

Take advantage of support services

Before crisis hits, investigate the support services available to you on your campus. This includes mental health services, through your campus counseling services, but could also include your advisors, professors and peers. If part of your stress is related to your finances, contact the financial aid department at your school and seek counsel.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, having suicidal thoughts or feelings,
or are otherwise in crisis, get immediate help. 

Call the National Graduate Student Crisis Line right away at 1–800-GRAD-HLP.

Do your best to be self-aware and proactive so that you can enjoy these rich and meaningful years as a grad student. Anxiety and even depression come to many of us. Take advantage of your resources and speak to a trusted friend or adviser. We are here to support you, listen to your needs, cheer you on as you move towards health, and of course, pray for you.

Dr. Karen McGibbon, LPC
Assistant Professor in Clinical Counseling and Practicum & Internship Coordinator, Winebrenner Seminary

Background image accessed via Adobe Spark, sourced to Pixabay.