In a high stress degree or career, is it actually possible to go through life without feeling burnt out, miserable and anxious?
If you have chosen to read this, you are probably questioning that yourself. If not, then lucky for you! I had a fairly turbulent time at university, and it admittedly took me a little while to settle in to life working as a dentist...running to time, managing hundreds of peoples (patients, colleagues, friends) expectations of me and having only 10-20 minutes to make a good impression on my patients.
Some (but not all!!) of the things I worried about through university were money, friendships, would I pass, would my friends pass, would we get our deposit back for our student house, would the slugs coming under the door in this property eat all my food, would the rat in the living room give us a contagious disease, would I run out of internet data and have to pay excessive amounts to top it up, would the plane I was going on in 6 months time have a fault...the list. goes. on.
Exercise is well known to improve mood and can be a great way to clear your mind and take some time to yourself. I personally find if work is stressful, it works best if I don't set specific targets at the gym. I do an activity I enjoy and feel like doing on that day and don't put pressure on myself to lose weight, get stronger or quicker. Whilst this can be great in general, during particularly stressful times I don't think it is healthy (for me!) to put that added pressure on myself.
Don’t compare yourself
This is really challenging but try not to compare yourself to others. There are times when you will be ahead and times when you will be behind. This is okay and normal. Remember the story about the hare and the tortoise? There may be setbacks, you might feel that you aren't progressing as quickly as others, but if you really want to achieve something and truly give 100%, it will be yours.
Despite being surrounded by many people, work and university can still end up being lonely for some. With some 7 billion people in the world and tens or hundreds of thousands in most cities, it is unlikely you have met everyone there is to meet. Whilst it can be scary, if you're feeling a little lonely, try going along to a new club or society, even if it is only once per week or once a fortnight you are likely to meet some new people to spend time with. For example hiking clubs, book groups, religious groups and societies, sports, or any other activities you enjoy. It is really important to have people around you to talk to and I have learnt from experience some friends do come and go, but often friends made later in life can be wonderful, and long term/life-long!
So one big stress especially for students is money. I am not ignorant to the fact that some people get more financial support than others, however the same advice would apply to all. Write a financial plan (I personally use Microsoft Excel). Calculate monthly money in, and out. I include everything from rent, insurance, phone bills, hair colour/cut, food shopping and petrol. This allows me to plan what I can save and what I can spend and means I can see if I have a specific or big outgoing one month that I need to budget for (such as dentists' annual £890 retention fee to be on the GDC register of dentists!!!). By planning money and budgeting this can help reduce a stress, or may highlight where you need to cut back or if you're able to then get a bit of help.
With a limited number of hours in the day it is quite possible that you won't be able to fit in everything that you would ever want to do. Therefore prioritisation is key. Is 30 minutes scrolling through Instagram going to benefit your end goal? Will it reduce your stress level? If not, put it right to the bottom of your list. By working out how much time you have and allocating tasks accordingly, this can help to reduce stress by giving you a plan. Does the task really need doing? If you do not have time to complete the task in the time you have, learn from this, reflect on it and figure out how this situation could be prevented in future. For example starting an assignment or revision earlier, speaking to a senior colleague about the amount of time you've been given to complete the job and explaining that you needed longer or spending less time on social media.
Set small goals
Life is like a marathon not a sprint. For most people who decide to run a marathon, they start with smaller chunks, gradually working up to the final event. In a similar way, tasks and goals in life can be broken up in to smaller portions. "Instead of pass this exam", tasks such as revise for 5 hours today, revise this lecture before dinner or finish this work assignment before my holiday may be more manageable. I personally split goals up even further, so may have something like "write introduction to article" on one day, or "email so and so before lunch time".
This can be tricky when you already feel overloaded, but 15 minutes a day (or some claim even less!!) is all I need to feel like I've done something for myself. Whether this is sitting quietly having a cup of tea, watching a quick YouTube video, listening to a Blinkist (check out the app!!) or even laying on my bed with a candle lit, I'll feel re-energised and motivated to carry on with my day after taking that time out. Although it is 15 minutes without working, I do feel the remaining time in my day is more productive as a result of it.
Keep things in perspective
It can be extremely difficult to keep things in perspective when there is a general pressure or stress in life. I have a self-diagnosed condition, which I have named 'quarter to twelve brain'. To enlighten you on this, at exactly 23:45, I lose all ability to be rational. It completely disappears and everything is 100 times more dramatic, concerning or problematic than it was approximately 5 minutes before (maybe 1,000 to keep with the drama theme)...
Luckily, I was able to identify that this was going on. And through any tears, tantrums or consumption of whole packets of caramel digestive thins that maybe going on, I am now able to acknowledge that this is just a result of the time...and being tired. Now that I have much more control over the stress I feel (or allow myself to feel) during the day, I am able to laugh at this feeling which comes if I have stayed up past my bedtime, and understand it really will be much better in the morning.
I personally feel that this is transferable into the high stress degree/job situation. When work is stressful you can become emotionally tired/drained, meaning that everything else is blown out of proportion. Take a step back and think about your overall situation. Are you worrying about the washing load you need to do because of your overall situation, or because the washing load is very stressful? Try to differentiate between the two and allow yourself to push out of your mind things which are stressful due to your overall situation.
Have a clear out
Throw away everything that you don't like, don't use, or don't need. I used to hoard everything and anything. Empty boxes, pretty packaging, samples of makeup and skin care products, pens ...so many pens... even birthday cards from everyone from every birthday. Taking some time to clear out these things can really help to clear your mind, giving you more space and a nicer environment to live and maybe study/work in. Rearrange your belongings so that they are in logical places, things you use frequently in accessible places, things you don't use stored away. There are some great YouTube videos on this. The stress of things being in illogical places can be easily dealt with by allocating some time to the task and getting it done. You'll feel better for it after, trust me!
Quarter to twelve brain. Need I say more?
So like I explained above, tiredness can have a huge impact on how you can cope with situations and concerns. Getting a good nights sleep is really important to allow your body (physically and mentally) to recover during times of stress. That can be easier said than done, as I am all too familiar with the busy mind preventing this, however some techniques I have found to help me fall asleep are as follows:
- Write a list of all the things you are thinking about, so you know you won't forget them and know you can deal with them in the morning
- Decaf drinks. So I recently learnt that decaf doesn't necessarily mean zero caffeine. Look for drinks that are caffeine free, personally I like chamomile, peppermint and the Pukka bedtime tea. Having a routine at night (for example getting ready, brushing teeth, lighting a candle and sitting having a drink for 10 minutes) can really help you to relax, reducing the time it takes to fall asleep
- Put your phone away. Before bed I set my phone to nighttime mode which dims the screen and try not to use it whilst in bed. The bright light can keep you awake and I personally find it makes me think about things even more
- Lavender or tea tree mists and oils. I personally find the smell of either of these sprayed on my pillow helps me to relax, I think it may be due to being part of my routine, I associate those smells with sleep
- Put your phone on silent, remove sources of distraction, switch off flashing lights, chargers and equipment in your room
Write a list
I love lists. I can admit it. I am a listoholic. A listophile. I write things on lists that I've already done just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. Before you judge me...I know it isn't just me. Whilst this may sound silly, it gives me a sense of being productive. Writing lists also helps me to see what I need to do and allows me to plan how I'm going to do it. It also provides some reassurance that I won't forget to do stuff, which is something that causes me stress.
Take care of your body
Whilst this may not always be possible, if your body is asking to rest, REST! When asked to take on another task, ask yourself will you benefit from it and do you need to do it? Sometimes it is important to do things for others, but it is also essential to look after yourself and prevent burning out. Give people realistic time frames when they ask you to do something, allowing them to set their expectations of you at the right level and reducing the stress on yourself. If you know the assignment won't be done in 24 hours, why promise this? The person expecting it will only be waiting the same amount of time, you will be more stressed and you will be worse off for missing a deadline. Under the umbrella of taking care of your body, I have included eating well. I am definitely partial to a treat, sweet or savoury! However in excess I know these things make me feel much worse overall. Adding in more portions of fruit and vegetables, increasing water intake and reducing sugary, fatty foods all help me to feel better overall. I don't personally 'detox', or follow any diets, but I do try to have a balance and avoid feeling guilty about anything - this would just add ANOTHER STRESS!!!
Talk to someone
Whether this be friends, family, colleagues (or seniors), your GP or a local support group, it is important you don't let these feelings of being stressed or over-worked get you down. Ultimately we have one life, which is for living. If you are not enjoying life due to extreme levels of stress and anxiety, something is seriously wrong and you may benefit from talking this through. Whether that be to work out what other options may be, if there are other things you could do to cope better or just to let of some steam talking can be a great way to get things in perspective and come up with an action plan.
Medication or meditation?
If you are seriously struggling, do not be afraid to seek professional help. Whilst support groups and talking therapy can be great, they aren't for everyone and sometimes medication is necessary to help with anxiety, depression or general low mood. This is nothing to be ashamed of and probably more common than you'd think.
Although this may not be the right approach for everyone, I personally avoided alcohol at times of stress. Whilst the temptation is there after a difficult day to come home and pour a glass of wine (gin...vodka...whatever...), I did not want this to be anything to do with my coping mechanism for stress. Alcohol is also a depressant, so when you are struggling, the immediate high may seem good and help you to forget your concerns, but more than likely this will be followed with a low, which will not help the overall picture.
That was a long one!!! So if you made it to the end I really hope this was helpful in some way. Happy de-stressing! :)
Dr Bethany Rushworth