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Mind Matters: A Low-Stress Semester

L.D. Cross

Admit it. You're feeling a tinge of anxiety, or even dread, about the new academic year.

You're just back to work after an extended vacation or (depending upon when you're reading this) a Labor Day weekend getaway. Or maybe you've just enjoyed the leisurely pace of summer, with no classes to teach or take and fewer colleagues around to send you e-mails, arrange meetings, and chat you up in hallways. For many people in the academic world, including scientists, the approaching end of summer is a harbinger of academic-year stress.

"September is a month of change," writes Kathryn Tristan, a research scientist on the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine and author of Anxiety Rescue: Simple Strategies to Stop Fear from Ruling Your Life, in an e-mail. "Not only does the season begin to change from the relaxing vacation mode of summer, but the transitional season of fall, with new schedules, new students, and instant change, abruptly interrupts our reverie. For those in research, it's back to meetings (cancelled because so many were on vacation) and data crunching ('I know I can make sense of these experiments!'), and teaching new faces who come to learn in the laboratory," she says.

Such changes are fairly predictable, the occupational hazards (with tests, tenure battles, and committee work) of the academic professions. Yet, it's easy to let these many changes and the increased demands on your time throw you off kilter. The increased stress can impair your decision-making, contribute to illness and absenteeism, and cause you to be less productive.

Although academic-year changes may be inevitable, the resulting stress can be managed. It's possible to anticipate and identify stressors you are likely to encounter upon turning the calendar page from August to September and to find ways to minimize their negative effects on your mind and body.

Plan ahead

National Science Foundation

One sure way to allay academia's seasonal stress is by planning and setting priorities, making use of aids like calendars and lists, either electronic or paper-and-pencil. Instead of letting unstructured thoughts of all the things you have to do race through your mind, make a list and prioritize. The next step: Plan how you will tackle those tasks, then do them.

And once you have those lists, you need to refer back to them frequently to assess your progress. A list you never look at can be another source of stress.

Adam Rich, graduate coordinator of the Department of Biological Sciences at the State University of New York, Brockport, divides his back-to-school to-do list into two broad categories: things he must do and things he would like to do. "I can't fully predict what will come during the semester, so I nail down a couple of things that are really, really important to students," like setting up test and lecture schedules, he writes in an e-mail. He puts those things at the top of his to-do list and addresses them immediately. He gets the most important things done and out of his head, sapping those potential anxiety sources.

If you have teaching or advising responsibilities, prepare for them in advance. Usually, Rich doesn't reread his teaching texts or review his class notes until it's nearly time for the lecture--but at the beginning of the year, he makes an exception to his usual practice. "I get the first 2 weeks done in advance so that I have time to deal with all of the beginning-of-the-semester emergencies," he says.

Research, too, must be planned. Make lists of the equipment or reagents you need to order and outline your goals for the first days or weeks in the lab. Rich makes a list of the students who will be working in his lab and sets concise goals for each one. "Getting these students off to a good start is essential," Rich says--and that's at least as true for the students as it is for the professor. If you're a student, don't wait for your adviser to set up a meeting. Work together to establish goals and milestones. Work out ways to measure your progress toward those goals.

Whether you are responsible for a laboratory, a research team, or just your own project, you need to do some planning. Then start working your way down the list. You'll get a shot of energy each time you cross something off.

Cut yourself--and others--some slack

Planning is good, but don't push it too far. Consciously or unconsciously, scientists and trainees tend to make overly zealous resolutions at the beginning of the school year, akin to those resolutions that people make at the beginning of the New Year. They may feel pressed to succeed, setting goals that are too ambitious. The result can be increased stress for themselves and the rest of the group.

Be careful not to add to the level of stress by pushing yourself (or others) too quickly or by changing your approach too radically. Remember: It takes people time to get back in the swing of things, and that includes you.

Get into a routine

On vacation, you may have kept erratic hours---sleeping too much or too little, going to bed and getting up late. That's fine during a break, but the need for productivity brings a need for structure. You need a routine of eating right, exercising on a schedule, and getting plenty of regular sleep. Such routines are proven to reduce stress and to help you stay in shape, physically and mentally.

Get organized

Devote some time to decluttering your work lab bench and desktop. Time spent upfront disposing of old files, e-mails, and materials (being sure to follow proper health-and-safety protocols) will help you save time and perform your job efficiently. There's something satisfying about starting with a clean bench, hood, or desk, like a new notebook at the beginning of the year when you were a child. But don't overdo it; for some people, cleaning can become a fetish and a time sink.

Stay connected

Healthy relationships with peers, supervisors, family, and friends are natural stress-buffers, but unhealthy relationships can catalyze stress. Strive to maintain collegial relationships at work. Cultivate friends among your colleagues who can help you achieve your work goals and encourage you to maintain a proper balance between work and play.

Never be too busy to listen or laugh. Be sensitive to other people's stress, not just your own. At the start of the academic year, staff turnover may affect the group and its individual members. The presence of new staff or students may alter the dynamics of the group. Do your best to make newcomers feel welcome and included. These people may be adjusting to new housing, a new language, new relationships, and a whole new culture, just as they are grappling with a new job.

If you have friends or colleagues who are consistently negative and draining, consider whether those friendships are worth keeping. A study by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University and collaborators at the University of Utah found that relationships characterized by ambivalence can lead to elevation in blood pressure; the same researcher found that blood pressure is higher around friends for whom we have mixed feelings than it is around people we clearly dislike. You may not be able to "edit" your relatives or colleagues, but you can free yourself from friends who are toxic.

Arm yourself with stress-busters

Many unavoidable sources of science-career-related stress (see "Mind Matters: Stress, an Uninvited Lab Visitor") are compounded by the challenge of juggling work and the rest of life. Today's climate of layoffs and furloughs can make that challenge more daunting than ever. Although it is difficult to cut back on essential work hours, or to leave the bench or your desk in the middle of the day for a stress-busting workout, there are things you can do without going anywhere: Breathe deep, stretch, roll your shoulders, close your eyes, listen to a calming melody on an iPod, and practice mindfulness for 10 minutes. This may sound hokey, but these techniques really work, and no one has to notice (unless they notice your improved mood). Before you head off into September, review some other ways you can manage stress (see "Mind Matters: 10-Minute Tools for Managing Stress").

"Stress is stress," Tristan says. "The commonalities that trigger our stresses may differ, but our responses are remarkably the same. Thus, it's essential to recognize that some degree of September stress is inevitable, and to prepare ahead and find effective techniques to keep it in check. Not only will it increase your productivity and satisfaction at work, its benefits may even carry over at home."

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