Coping with Stress

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

When I first wrote this, it was March 2020 and we were just beginning to experience the dangers of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic. What an incredibly stressful time! By the middle of June it was already clear that the current Covid crisis along with severe political upheavals within American society have been triggering of profound levels of anxiety and distress.

As many higher education observers have pointed out, on too many campuses there is an inadequate response by college officials to the current crisis of mental health and Covid-related impacts on students’ ability to successfully continue in their studies. See, for example, this August 2020 article from Inside Higher Ed:

Now, in September of 2020, graduate students have been experiencing  challenges to their progress for a number of reasons. Consider these articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education: 

Two stories from InsideHigherEd further underscore the impact of campus closures on graduate students:

In the face of great change and disruption of our everyday activities and lifestyles, it is easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. Our mental health can suffer. Now more than ever, it is essential to focus on managing your response to stress. 

These tips provided by Adam Sicinski offer great wisdom at times when it all feels just too much:

* Recognize Overwhelm

The first step for when you’re feeling overwhelmed with life is to actually recognize and acknowledge the moment when you start feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelm is however something that kind of creeps up on us very slowly, then suddenly hits us like a firecracker. It often begins in a very subtle way by making us feel a little rushed. This pushes us out of our comfort zone and we progressively start losing control. What’s more is that we now no longer have the clarity we need to get stuff done, and as a result we become very negative and self-critical.

* Take Yourself from the Situation

Having recognized that you’re feeling overwhelmed with life, it’s now time to take one long deep breath… then get-on-out-of-there and completely remove yourself from the situation. Yes, I actually mean walk away from the situation in the opposite direction. You cannot continue what you’re doing feeling this way. Remove yourself, and do it fast! The sooner the better. At least now you have the space to think things through more clearly. And your first thoughts must be directed at what exactly triggered your feelings of overwhelm. Identifying this trigger is the first step toward taking back control.

* Detach Yourself Emotionally

Feeling overwhelmed with life is very much like a problem. You have this experience that you just can’t seem to handle, however you are only feeling this way because of how you’re viewing this situation. You will never find a solution to your problem if you’re emotionally invested within that problem. You must therefore separate your emotions from this experience and then challenge yourself to think things through a little differently. Specifically, you must decide to either shift your perspective of the situation, to change the situation, to remove yourself from the situation, or to figure out how to best cope with it.

* Take a Personal Inventory

Let’s say that you decided to challenge yourself to try and work through this situation. Well in that case, it’s now time to take a personal inventory. A personal inventory is an acknowledgement of your personal strengths, knowledge, skills, tools and the support you have on hand to help you cope with this situation far more effectively. With all these things at your disposal you no longer need to succumb to feeling overwhelmed with life or with any particular situation. You just need to figure out how to make use of these resources to help you work through your predicament in an optimal way.

* Think Things Through

Having taken a personal inventory, you should now understand where your strengths lie, and therefore you probably feel more capable of working through your feelings of overwhelm in this particular situation. Consider for a moment how you could utilize your time, skills, tools and the resources you have on hand to try and make things a little less overwhelming. Ask yourself how you could potentially work through your task more effectively and rationally. Possibly the solution lies in tackling your task in small pieces. Or just maybe there is a better way to do things that you hadn’t considered before.

* Take Charge of the Situation

No matter what solutions you come up with to your dilemma, it’s now time to take full responsibility and start moving forward. In other words, commit yourself to taking charge of the situation. Yes, there will be things and aspects that you still won’t be able to control. However, don’t allow these things to distract you from everything else that you can do right now. With this in mind, focus on what can be controlled and work through these tasks one small step at a time. Even if you can’t do it all, you can at the very least begin somewhere. Start small and slowly build momentum one mini-task at a time.

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Author: Scott Kerlin

Dr. Scott Kerlin received his Ph.D in Organizational Systems and Counseling from the University of Oregon in 1992. He also holds Master's degrees in Management/Organizational Psychology and Public Administration. He has extensive research leadership and professional development work with graduate students in U.S. and Canadian universities. Details are available at https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottkerlin/

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