Stress and Depression

Graduate study is arduous work, and sometimes the sheer demands of graduate school coupled with other simultaneous pressures (financial, career, family, spouse/partner needs, etc.) can take a toll on physical and mental well-being.

Nobody has a greater interest in your well-being than you. Know what's good for your physical and emotional health, and take control. Determine the optimal workload and pace that will enable you to complete your work in a timely manner without burning out.

If you have not already done so, you should consider designing a strategy for personal wellness as you go through your graduate studies.

Stress and Mood Management Strategies

Develop an effective stress management strategy

It is common to experience periods of high stress, fatigue, exhaustion, and even feel totally overwhelmed by how much you have to get done. What is important is that you manage these feelings effectively, and that you recognize when you may need to reach out for support from others.

Recognize when you're beginning to slow down, lose your interest or your momentum. Realize that peaks and valleys, lows and highs are integral parts of the process. Writing can be the loneliest part of the journey. Recognize when the isolation is wearing you down.

Although a certain amount of stress can serve as a motivator, too much stress can immobilize you or seriously diminish your progress. Stress interferes with clear judgment and makes it difficult to take the time to make good decisions. It causes difficult situations to be seen as a threat, not a challenge. It damages the positive frame of mind you need for high quality work by promoting negative thinking and damaging self-confidence. It can generate excessive worry and anxiety, confusion and inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, impatience and irritability. Behavioural effects of excessive stress include bad moods, being forgetful, changing eating habits, and diminished attention spans.

If you have noticed increased stress during your graduate years, take steps to manage it more effectively. The following will help:

  • Be sure to get regular exercise
  • Eat well
  • Maintain hobbies and interests outside of work
  • Take time for social activities

View UBC Counselling Services Self-help: Stress-Management web resources for more information.

Guard against burnout

Burnout happens when you've been pushing too hard for too long.

The warning signs of burnout are:

  • Loss of interest in or questioning the meaning of your studies and research
  • Chronic fatigue - exhaustion, a sense of being physically run down and emotionally flat
  • Anger at those making demands
  • Cynicism, negativity, and irritability
  • A sense of being besieged
  • Feelings of helplessness

Just as with stress management, burnout prevention requires a number of personal strategies of self-care and also, the support and assistance from others.

The best solution is to take time away from work to allow your emotional interest to regenerate, get perspective, and re-establish the balance in your life.

Know your options for dealing with critical life events

Life happens. During any stage of your graduate education, you could encounter a personal event that affects your momentum. Life events such as death or illness of a spouse or family member, divorce or loss of income can disrupt even the best efforts at stress management during graduate study.

Different life events have different impacts. In some cases, however, it may be possible to anticipate events and prepare for them. It may also be useful to recognize the impact of events that have occurred so that you can take account of them.

If you encounter a critical event in your life, talk to your graduate supervisor and graduate advisor about the options available to you.

  • Don't simply withdraw and leave others to guess at what is going on.
  • You can take a leave from your graduate studies.
  • You may also be able to negotiate the timeline for various requirements.
  • Your research supervisor and graduate advisor will have encountered such situations before and will be happy to help you make arrangements.

Take your medical concerns seriously

If you encounter a serious health matter that is affecting your performance in your graduate studies, pay attention to your health! Visit the UBC Student Health Service.

Make time for regular check-ups, inoculations, and other routine health care.

View the UBC Health and Wellness online Health Encyclopedia for more information regarding many health-related issues.

Recognize the warning signs of an anxiety disorder

Sometimes chronic stress and life events can lead to an ongoing anxiety disorder. If you start having severe symptoms of anxiety, take time to identify what is wrong.

There are a number of common anxiety-related conditions, including:

  • Panic Disorder. Here, the person experiences waves of panic, marked by such things as feelings of dizziness, heart pounding, sweating and trembling. Often the cause of the panic is not clear to the person, which contributes to his or her fear. Panic Disorder is a common condition and one that can be effectively treated.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here, the person can't stop worrying. He or she worries about catastrophic outcomes (failing exams, flunking out of school, not getting a job) without reason. Days and nights are marked by rumination about feared negative events, most of which never occur.
  • Social Phobia. For some students, social anxiety interferes with their ability to give seminar presentations, complete oral exams, defend their thesis / dissertation, or even talk with their faculty members.
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Frightening events as assault, rape, and bad car accidents happen to graduate students as often as to other people. For some people, those events result in ongoing distressing memories, nightmares, and the desire to avoid situations and activities associated with the event.

It is important to note that effective treatments are available for these and other anxiety-related conditions. Talk to UBC Counselling Services or your family doctor to find out what can be done to overcome career-crippling anxiety.

Recognize the warning signs of depression

If you experience high levels of stress at any period of your life - including during your years of graduate study-you become vulnerable to depression.

Mild depression is not uncommon among graduate students. It can signal the beginning of a period of change and growth. It can point you in the correct direction for your future life and career.

If depression becomes immobilizing and reduces your pleasure in life, you may have a depressive disorder. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health defines a depressive disorder as “an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts. It affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks about things. A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away.”

Depression is a common condition. If you do experience depression, recognize that you are not alone. According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, about 5-12 percent of men and 10-25 percent of women will have at least one episode of major depressive disorder during their lifetimes. Females have higher rates of major depression than males by a ratio of two to one.

Common signs and symptoms of depression include the following:

  • a persistent sad or “empty” mood
  • loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed
  • loss of appetite or weight loss
  • sleep problems
  • fatigue, despite adequate sleep
  • feelings of pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating
  • psychomotor slowing or agitation
  • thoughts of wanting to escape, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts

If you believe you are experiencing depression, make an appointment to visit UBC Counselling Services or visit the UBC Conselling Services web site. The counselling staff have considerable experience talking with students who are depressed and are a good source of support. Services and programs are available to help students manage depression effectively.

Suicidal thoughts and feelings

Sometimes depression can become so severe that it can result in suicidal feelings or thoughts. Suicidal feelings are more likely to occur when people experience stressful events such as major losses or personal setbacks. If you experience suicidal thoughts or feelings, the most important things to do are to:

  • Communicate these thoughts to someone. Don't suffer in silence.
  • Contact UBC Counselling, Health and Wellness. UBC Counselling Services also provides information on emergency services.
  • Allow yourself time to deal with your feelings. Make taking care of yourself by getting support your top priority.
  • Recognize that these feelings are temporary and will subside as you implement coping strategies.
  • Recognize that you are not alone. Many people have thoughts of suicide.
  • Accept the fact that you are a valuable human being regardless of life set-backs and losses. Don't confuse your human worth with achievement-related success.