By Aglaja Kempinski |

Stress – and often interlinked with it, anxiety – seem to be part and parcel of writing a PhD. Advice to just “stress less”, as I so often hear it from doctors, parents or other concerned parties, is unfortunately less than helpful (“Why, of course, now that you say it…. It never occurred to me to just stress less. Mind. Blown.).

In fact, I personally find the suggestion that the majority of my stress is avoidable irkingly patronising. Maybe you are one of the lucky PhD students who never feel stressed – but chances are you, too, have come to accept that the only way to have a stress-free PhD is to not do a PhD at all. To me, it’s somewhat of a trade-off: I get to work on what I am passionate about, traverse boundaries of knowledge and explore different kinds of pathways to expressing what I find. A bit of stress seems like a small price to pay.

But just because you (most likely) cannot escape it does not mean you have to let it defeat you. Below are a few pointers on how to manage the stress you cannot avoid.


What kind of stress is it?

It is important to figure out what kind of stress you are dealing with. I firmly believe that there is good stress and bad stress. Bad stress, for whatever reason, is so intense it brings everything you are doing to a grinding halt while you are paralyzed with anxiety and chewing your fingernails down to their fleshy, bloody bed. When that happens, you need to take radical action. If you cannot immediately think about how to get rid of the stress factor, go to a doctor. If they tell you to “stress less” keep pushing them until they find with you a solution that works. This kind of stress, however, should be the exception.

Whatever is going on here is probably not 'good' stress. (© Michael Zapf, flickr)

Whatever is going on here is probably not ‘good’ stress. (© Michael Zapf, flickr)

‘Good’ stress, on the other hand is when you are oversubscribed but still productive enough that a large enough percentage of things still get done. This level of stress can be fun and rewarding. Getting things done feels good and makes following tasks easier to do. For example, your writing is proven to improve drastically if you just force yourself to do it everyday.

The difference between good stress and bad stress is similar to the difference between ‘a bit of a cold’ and pneumonia. The first one, while not great, is best dealt with by being careful but carrying on nonetheless. The second one means you have to stop what you are doing and get professional help. This is important. There are levels of stress that no blog post in the world can help with.


Having coffee with friends

It’s a stale but all too common joke to make fun of people who get together only to complain about how FRIGHTFULLY busy they both are. Yes, I get it – we could have used the time to work rather than complaining about how little time we have. Haha. Funny. However, while we like to think of time as a straightforward resource to spend, it is not. Taking half an hour off for a coffee with friends can actually result in you feeling refreshed, stepping out of whatever problem it is you were working on, recharging your batteries through social contact…. to say nothing of the potentially inspiring effect of a meeting of the minds and the caffeine rush. So, if you want to go for a coffee, just do it.

the queen of coffee houses, Café Central in Vienna. In a pinch, office brewed will also do. (© Wikimedia)

the queen of coffee houses, Café Central in Vienna. In a pinch, office brewed will also do. (© Wikimedia)

Identifying non-crossroads.

While this somewhat comes down to prioritising, this is one of my favourite activities of late. When I feel the pressure of making decisions and getting anxious about how to best get something done, I make a point of looking for things of little significance elsewhere. Which font I use, for example, to submit my chapter in is of pretty much no consequence. It is a non-crossroad of life. I will never look back at this point in time thinking ‘Oh, if I had only chosen Ariel instead of Calibri…”.

Relish those moments. Do it now. Look at a decision you have to make and realise it is a non-crossroad…

omm..... one step closer to nirvana (© flickr)

omm….. one step closer to nirvana (© flickr)

Let chaos reign

Some people are messy. Most have been so since childhood and been chastised for it their entire life. The great thing about being an adult is that, ideally,  you start caring less and less about what people think of you about how you run your ship. Personally, I no longer care when people make fun of my messy desk. Clearly I got where I am despite a lack of organisational OCD. If anything, this is a condition to be envied. Be proud of who you are. A messy desk is a non-issue. BOOM.


no, this is not my desk. I have a plant and a cork board. (©flickr)


It pains me to say this but regular exercise, ideally in the fresh and airy outside, seems to be the best thing to cope with stress. If this does not float your boat, a walk in nature seems to bring similar results

Love Thyself

Of course, a post by me would be incomplete without some profound hippie-dippie conclusion: It all comes down to loving yourself; allowing yourself to be who you are and trusting yourself to keep being good at the things you already ARE good at and to keep improving where you have been improving your entire life. As in love, a solid relationship with yourself – knowing your own worth – can protect you from rough patches affecting you too much. For now, it’s probably impossible to keep stress entirely at bay. Just face it with integrity. Namaste.


(feature image © 2014 uneekL4evr. Licensed under CC-BY.)