Stress in Academia: Debunking Three Common Myths

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Universities have become a breeding ground for stress, so much that I can hardly remember a day going by without hearing the words, ‘I’m so stressed’ being uttered by my students. With multiple deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain job market, it is no wonder that students are reportedly experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. However, students aren’t alone in their experiences, as administrative and academic staff have also exhibited a sharp increase in stress-related illnesses, leading to higher numbers of absences throughout the academic year.

Accompanying the increasing number of stressed out staff and students is an almost tacit acceptance of stress within university culture. Not many people question or challenge the prevalence of stress in higher education –  instead there has been a normalization of stress within academia. This normalization of stress has been propagated and reinforced by several myths. In this post, I will highlight three of the most common myths relating to stress in academia.


Myth#1: Stress is Natural

The first myth about stress is that it is a natural part of academic life. I came face-to-face with this attitude when I was attending a Q&A session for incoming doctoral students. When asked about how to manage the anxiety associated with completing a doctorate, one of the panelists remarked: ‘You are a PhD student, you are supposed to be stressed out.’

The trouble with this outlook is that it brushes aside the impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

Stress is not simply a feeling we experience as a consequence of a situation or event, it actually facilitates a physiological response in our bodies known as the fight or flight mechanism. Most of the things that trigger our fight or flight responses – exams, dissertations, deadlines – are things we face on a daily basis. As a consequence, we tend to live in states of prolonged and chronic stress, all of which can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

So despite the tendency to see stress as a natural part of academic life, when we consider its impact, there is actually nothing natural about it.


Myth#2: Being Stressed is a Virtue

Not only is stress seen as a natural part of studying and working in academia, it is also commonly equated with productivity and performance. On this basis, it is easy to assume that there is something virtuous in being stressed out – so many wear their stress as a badge of honour.

I recall on countless occasions asking colleagues how their holidays were and have noticed how their responses are often framed in relation to how much they ‘accomplished’ during their time off. In a profession where individuals have considerable freedom to establish working hours and routines, it is interesting to see how holidays have been transformed into work spaces.

This non-stop, 24/7 approach to work has also impacted students, as reflected in the introduction of 24/7 libraries across several universities. Irrespective of their convenience, the onset of 24-hour libraries sends a message to students that there is no natural end to the working day. In this respect, the stress-as-a-virtue approach is tacitly condoned and perpetuated by many higher education institutions.


Myth#3: Stress Comes from Outside of Me

A final myth about stress is that it is something that comes from outside of us. It may be an upcoming exam, publishing your first book, applying for jobs or preparing a conference presentation. When we feel stressed in the midst of any of these tasks, the source of the stress is thought to reside outside of us – it is a consequence of the task itself.

The notion of stress coming from outside of us puts us in a disempowering position since there is little we can do to control our external environment. The fact is, there is nothing inherently stress-producing about an exam, a publication, job interview or a conference presentation.

The root of our stress is not the event or situation, it’s the internal dialogue in our minds in relation to that specific task, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we get caught up in our thinking. When we recognize the true source of stress, it becomes much easier to tackle it head on.

So what does all of this mean? It means that if we are going to lower the rates of stress across higher education institutions, we must make a concerted effort to debunk these myths.

  • First, we will need to counter the tendency to normalize stress by appreciating the actual impact it has on our health.
  • Second, we should stop equating the experience of stress with productivity and performance by refusing to wear our stress as a badge of honour.
  • Finally, we need to acknowledge our thought processes as the true source of our stress.

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a PhD Student



The process of completing a PhD is quite unlike any other experience. It’s a huge commitment that undoubtedly requires some sacrifice on both a personal and perhaps a financial level as well. With most doctoral theses ranging between 80 000- 100 000 words, it is an understatement to say that the process demands a high degree of self-discipline. For many students, it can feel like an exceptionally long and treacherous road, with ups and downs as well as twists and turns, and even some roadblocks along the journey.

These features of PhD life are of course balanced out by the many benefits of completing a doctorate. Apart from the potential to set you off on a different career path and open up new doors, having a doctorate in hand can also feel deeply satisfying. Whether it’s the start of a larger body of research or an end in itself, the doctorate represents your own unique contribution to a particular field. Within the world of academia, there are few things that feel as rewarding as completing a PhD.

When I look back at my own experience as a PhD student I certainly have no regrets. There are, however, a few things I wish I knew while I was in the middle of it and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. The PhD is what you do, not who you are

Something I observed while I was completing my PhD was the way in which many of my classmates (myself included) started to over identify with our work. We would often refer to our PhD projects as though they were an extension of ourselves. Given how many years it takes to complete a PhD and the fact that it is an incredibly personal piece of work, it’s only natural to see it become a part of our lives. However, when we start to see it as a reflection of our self-worth, the stakes suddenly become much higher. By over identifying with the work we produce, we tie our fortunes to it and allow ourselves to be stifled when we have off days, and may even take criticism of the project personally. It’s important to stay grounded and remember that the PhD is something you do and not who you are.

  1. Nobody writes 100 000 words

When I used to think about completing my PhD, the task seemed incredibly daunting. I kept thinking to myself ‘how am I going to write 100 000 words?’ But the fact is that nobody has ever done this – it would be impossible! What people do is write small, manageable chunks over a longer period of time. This feels much less daunting to think about. So stop thinking of your PhD as 100 000 words and think of it for what it is and how it will be completed– one chapter at a time – one section at a time. Espousing this subtle shift in perception can make a world of difference.

  1. Take a break (and don’t bring your work with you!)

Like so many of my colleagues, I found it difficult to take long breaks away from my work. Whenever holidays came around, I would do a balance sheet of how much I had accomplished and how much time I could take off as a result. Needless to say, the vacation time that I allotted to myself was negotiable and always dependent on my progress. Given the perpetual feeling that I was always behind, the time I allowed myself to take off, if any, was short. I would always sneak a book or two into my suitcase when I was going on holiday. I can now see how unhealthy my approach to vacations were. And not being gentle with myself actually made me less productive, and generally less happy. Even if you think you can’t afford to take a break from work, the truth is that you can’t afford not to!

  1. Even when you feel like you aren’t making progress, you actually are

One of the most frustrating aspects of completing a PhD relates to the feeling that we aren’t making any progress. I found this to be particularly the case after spending endless amounts of time sifting through journal articles and books in order to determine which ones were relevant for my research. During these periods, I often felt like I had nothing to show for days and even weeks of work. The lesson I learned from all of this was the importance of viewing the PhD as a process, rather than an outcome. It was primarily because of my emphasis on the outcome that I wasn’t able to appreciate or adequately assess my progress at certain points throughout. For further advice on how I overcame this, see my post on process versus outcome where I discuss some strategies for taking a process-oriented approach to thesis writing.

  1. Stop thinking about it when you’re not doing it

I often found that no matter what I was doing, I was always thinking about my PhD. Typically, it wasn’t in an exciting, light bulb moment way where creative ideas would come to me, it was mostly worry. Worry that I wouldn’t get it done on time, that it wouldn’t be good enough and that I hadn’t done enough. During my PhD years, I didn’t know how important it was to be in the present moment and to properly switch off. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your PhD even when you aren’t working on it, it’s an indication that you need to get away from it for a while. Immerse yourself in something different – if not to give your mind a break, then for the sake of your sanity. The last thing you want is to be that person who can only think and talk about their research. See a film, do volunteer work, or go to the gym, anything to create some healthy distance and disengagement from your work.

  1. Life doesn’t automatically become less stressful when you finish

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but the stress you experience while completing a PhD will not automatically come to an end on the day that you submit. When I was in the middle of writing up, I recall how much I looked ahead to my submission date as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, I soon found a host of other stresses that took the place of my PhD. Things like applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, publishing my thesis, writing conference papers and research grant applications, to name just a few. In my own experience, some of these pressures actually felt worse than the PhD – perhaps because of my anticipation that life would automatically be less stressful after submitting. So rather than holding your breath and waiting until you’re done, I would recommend making your happiness and wellbeing a priority now. That means finding healthy ways to manage your stress levels and not simply waiting for your submission date.

For further information please visit my coaching page or get in touch with me at

Want to Overcome Exam Stress?

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When it comes to managing exam stress there is certainly no shortage of advice for students. What I have noticed, however, is that most of the advice that is on offer tends to focus on either exam prep or relaxation techniques. The idea behind this is that if students are better prepared and go into their exams feeling relaxed this will significantly minimize their stress levels.

While I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the importance of either of these areas, the fact is that exam preparation tips and relaxation techniques are dealing more with the symptoms of exam stress as opposed to its actual causes.

Contrary to what many people believe, much of the stress that students experience in relation to their exams is by no means inevitable, nor does it really derive from the exam itself. In fact, the roots of exam stress originate in the mind and more specifically, in the types of thoughts that are attached to an exam and the stories a student tells himself or herself in relation to their performance. This is incredibly normal, but it’s no fun for those who experience it.

While it isn’t possible to change the fact of exams or avoid taking them altogether, it is possible to get to the bottom of the stress surrounding an exam and to shift your experience of it. All it requires is a willingness to overcome the stress and an openness to explore your thought patterns and underlying belief systems. I’ve helped many students do just that.

If you would like some assistance in overcoming exam stress, I offer one-to-one coaching sessions as well as workshops for larger groups, so please feel free to get in touch with me at

Give Yourself a Break



Do you find it difficult to take a break from your work? I can definitely sympathize with this feeling. When I was a student I was extremely reluctant to take breaks and vacations for fear that I would fall behind in my work. I remember feeling like I had so much to do and was constantly running behind schedule. So I actually started to bring my work with me on holidays. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

What I learned was that mixing my vacation time with the expectation to complete work is a recipe for disaster. Not only did I not complete any of the work that I had hoped to do, I also didn’t fully relax or enjoy myself when I was on holiday either because I was plagued by ‘work guilt.’ So there was no actual benefit to going on holiday and afterwards, I would return feeling even more stressed out than before I had left. Ironically then, it was after I came back from a vacation that I felt most in need of taking one!

Our willingness to take breaks says a lot about how we view ourselves in relation to our work. When we are reluctant to give ourselves a break it is often because we don’t feel like we deserve one. There may be a sense of enormity surrounding the tasks we face and a belief that we haven’t made sufficient progress to warrant taking time off. So it is actually our own judgments that prevent us from taking breaks.

The tendency to judge ourselves is especially strong whenever we encounter a stumbling block in our work. Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely in those instances where we feel least deserving of a break that we would benefit most from taking one.


Multitasking: The Opposite of Mindfulness


Whenever the word multitasking is used, there is often a positive connotation associated with it. The fact that I can prepare dinner and chat with a friend on the phone while simultaneously ordering a book on Amazon is typically perceived to be a good thing. And so the assumption is that I should be happy that I am a good multitasker. Since the ability to multitask is viewed as such a valuable asset, it is not uncommon to find people referring to their multitasking skills on their CVs and in job interviews.

Despite the positive connotations associated with multitasking, being a multitasker is something that I consciously avoid. Attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once takes us away from the present moment, which is one of the core principles of mindfulness. Focusing on multiple tasks in a single moment creates a feeling of being scattered and pulled in several different directions. When we say no to multitasking, we allow ourselves to fully complete a task before moving on to the next. In so doing, we remain completely present in that moment and as a result, we end up completing tasks with greater ease and fewer accidents! It can also bring greater focus and enjoyment to what we are doing.

So there is a lot to gain in saying no to multitasking and there are several small action steps we can put into place to help overcome the urge to multitask. For instance, switching off our phones when we are working, designating set time periods in each day to check email, and also setting clearer boundaries between working hours and relaxation time. While these may seem like little things, they can all yield important results in helping us to stay in the present moment.

Overcoming Presentation Anxiety


Let’s be honest, few people enjoy standing up in front of large groups of people and speaking. Whether it’s a short seminar presentation, a lecture, or delivering a conference paper, public speaking can feel like a daunting undertaking. Many studies have shown that people fear the prospect of public speaking even more than they fear death.

Over the years, I’ve come across many students who have a crippling fear of public speaking, and their resistance to delivering presentations in class is quite strong. They would do anything to avoid it, so much so that they may even neglect to show up for class on the days they are scheduled to present.

I do feel for these students and I wish I could tell them that public speaking isn’t an important skill to develop, but the truth is that it is an incredibly valuable skill for whatever field they go into. The good news is that the anxiety surrounding public speaking is something that can be overcome.

When working on this with students, the first place I often start is by asking them to recall the sensations they experience when they are presenting. Almost all of them have reported feeling their heart racing, palms sweating, shortness of breath, dry mouth and even shaking. All of this is very natural and is an indication that their fight or flight response system has been activated. From a mind-body medicine perspective, this makes perfect sense. The activation of the fight or flight response is how our body responds to perceived danger, and as public speaking demonstrates, the danger need not actually be life-threatening. This goes to show that the sensations of anxiety that some people experience during a presentation are a consequence of the stress that has built up in the mind.

We don’t often acknowledge how our fears affect the body, and in the case of public speaking, our capacity to communicate effectively. However, working through this piece of the puzzle is the single most important factor in overcoming presentation anxiety. The key to building up a more positive experience during presentations is to do the opposite of what would appear to come naturally in moments of high stress – and that is to consciously slow down. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of a presentation to slow down, but once we appreciate how fear manifests in the body, the power of this approach becomes clearer.

This simple action of slowing down helps activate one of the quickest stress-busters that we have access to in any given moment, and that is our breathing. By consciously controlling our breathing through taking steady, consistent and slow breaths, we can instantly de-activate the fight or flight response system and in turn, minimize the uncomfortable symptoms that may arise during a presentation.

Presentation anxiety is not something people should have to live with. It can be overcome and I’ve seen countless people do just that. It starts with acknowledging the intricate connection between the mind and the body, and paying attention to how our thoughts may be impacting on us more generally.

Process versus Outcome


One of the biggest challenges I faced as a doctoral student was a tendency to view the PhD as an outcome, rather than a process. In my mind, it was one enormous piece of work and unless I was done, or close to being done, I found it difficult to relax or rest. Even in those moments when I was not actively working on it, I felt like I couldn’t properly switch off. It was on my mind constantly. It was an exhausting way to spend four years, but somehow it seemed justified and I didn’t know of any other way to approach my work.

One of the consequences of viewing the PhD as an outcome was the feeling that I had nothing to show for entire days, weeks or months of work. Research often requires us to sift through articles and books in order to determine which ones are relevant, and undoubtedly some will not be. This is the equivalent of a scientist having to do countless experiments that fail before one succeeds. Even though I knew on some level that this is what my research would entail, I still held on to the expectation that it should be a simple and direct path; in actuality it is a series of uneven steps that – by its very nature – required me to go in fits and starts, and sometimes in circles, before I got to where I wanted to go. This is something I didn’t appreciate at all, and as a result I felt incredibly frustrated throughout.

Having met several doctoral students who have fallen into the same trap that I was once in, it seems clear to me that we need a better benchmark for assessing our progress when it comes to completing longer-term projects – a way where we can stop attaching to the outcome. So I started to think about strategies for how we might begin to approach big tasks as a process instead of focusing on the intended outcome.

The main tool that I’ve found to be quite useful is journaling. At the end of my work day, I spend a few moments writing out what I did that day. Not as a way to police or berate myself for not having done more, but specifically as a way to remind myself of the nature of the project, which cannot be completed in one day, but in a series of smaller baby steps. It allows me to feel forward movement, even on days when I get stuck and go in circles, because I can then start to acknowledge that this is just part of the process. What this does is build up some positive momentum and put me in a better space to recognize that I am on my way. It allows for the fact that it’s a messy road and not a straight one.

While we all know this on some level, I feel like it hasn’t been properly articulated, and hence I see so many students and colleagues frustrated with how they approach their work. It’s nice to know that something as simple as a journal can make all the difference in the world to our mindset. Adopting this technique can allow us to relax and leave greater space for the excitement and passion that drove us to dedicate years of our life and mental energy to such a big project in the first place.

What Makes You Valuable?


‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same.’

The quote above is taken from the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. I must admit that this line had confused me for many years. I couldn’t understand why Kipling was suggesting that we treat triumph and disaster just the same when we are taught exactly the opposite, that we should actively seek out opportunities to win in life and avoid disaster at any cost.

This is certainly what we are taught in academia. We are pleased when we receive high marks, proud when our books are published and celebrate when we obtain large research grants. But there is another side to this delight and that is the despair and disappointment that sets in when things do not go our way. When our marks are less than what we desired, when our manuscript is rejected and when we don’t get the research funding we applied for.

Although these might feel like entirely opposite experiences, there is actually some degree of overlap between the two. In both cases, that is the delight in our triumph and despair in our disasters, we have tied our sense of self to our achievements. One of the consequences of this is that our value and worth become entirely dependent on things outside of us.

While it is understandable to be delighted when things go our way and disappointed when they do not, neither should impinge upon our sense of self. For if we measure our value in relation to how much we achieve, we are setting ourselves up for a fall.

If we can begin to shift away from identifying ourselves with what we achieve, we will not only remove a major source of stress in our lives, it would allow us to reconnect with the passion and enthusiasm that drove us towards a particular path in the first place. It is easy to lose sight of this passion when we are busy chasing ‘success’.

It’s time to starting thinking of ourselves as valuable, not for what we do in the world, but simply for who we are, and to be grounded enough to weather our triumphs and disasters with an equal measure of grace.

‘I’ll Be Happy When…’


How often do you find yourself uttering the words ‘I’ll be so happy when it’s done’? The ‘it’ in this sentence could be any number of things, but it usually refers to a particular project or task you are working on.

I found myself saying this seemingly harmless phrase all throughout my time as a student. First it was ‘I’ll be happy when my exams are over’ and then it was ‘I’ll be happy when my dissertation is done.’ By the time I reached the PhD level, I felt as though nothing could give me greater satisfaction than completing my thesis. Surely this was the moment when I could finally relax and be happy – after all, the PhD was the highest degree I could obtain and the culmination of several years of hard work, so what could possibly come next?

As soon as I had jumped over the PhD hurdle, I quickly found out that there was a host of further ‘I’ll be happy whens’ waiting for me on the other side: I’ll be happy when I land my first academic post; I’ll be happy when I publish my thesis as a book; I’ll be happy when I get my first major research grant, and the list goes on and on. It literally never ends, as there is always something else to reach for and something else to be done.

So waiting until things are crossed off a ‘to do’ list before relaxing and taking a breath is not a sustainable approach to work. It also makes us prone to ignoring the importance of enjoying life – even in the midst of writing a conference paper, marking, or whatever the task may be. Moreover, by placing so much emphasis on getting things ‘done’ and reaching our destination, it’s all too easy to overlook the satisfaction that comes from the steps we take along our path.

Coming to grips with the reality that there will always be things on my ‘to do’ list has encouraged me to stop saying ‘I’ll be happy when’ and to instead ask: how can I be happy now?

Being Present


I remember when I was in school my teachers would begin each class by taking attendance. This would usually involve the teacher calling out the name of each student from a class list, to which we would respond ‘present.’ Although I didn’t give much thought to it at the time, taking attendance was an excellent way to start a lesson by bringing everyone’s focus into the classroom.

Taking roll call is not a common practice in higher education institutions. By the time a student reaches this level, it is usually down to them to decide whether or not to attend classes. In any case, since university attendance is generally quite high, there doesn’t appear to be much need to do a roll call prior to lectures and seminars.

Over the years, however, I’ve realized that physically showing up to a class by no means equates to being present in the room. Much of it has to do with the fact that nearly every student today carries a laptop to class. As we’ve moved away from handwriting to typing, a laptop is seen as an essential tool for learning. Yet, it’s also a device that people use in their leisure time. I can’t help but notice a surge in students who simultaneously type notes while skyping friends and surfing the web in the middle of a class.

The inability to focus is not just an affliction that affects today’s students. The tendency to be present without being fully present has become so widespread in our society. For instance, in restaurants, it has become more common than not to see half (if not all) of the people at a table with their eyes glued to their phones. Similarly, the tendency to walk whilst texting seems to be increasing. We seem to be perpetually distracted and completely incapable of focusing on one task whether it’s walking, having dinner or sitting in a classroom.

The inability to be present is deeply problematic. It means that we are less focused and as a consequence, more scattered in our actions and thoughts. It pulls us in several different directions, makes the tasks we are working on less enjoyable, and allows for a higher degree of accidents! It also detracts from our ability to interact with one another. So there are many good reasons to consciously work on our capacity to be fully present.

Although it may not be possible for instructors at university level to start doing a roll call, there are other strategies that can help students in bringing their focus into the present moment. This could involve getting everyone to switch off their devices at the start of a class; taking a few moments to centre and calm everyone before jumping into a lesson; asking students to consciously let go of any thoughts or concerns regarding what they were doing prior to the class and what they need to do after; or simply stating the intentions for the lesson at the outset. These simple strategies can also assist an instructor in getting into the present moment before a class.

Not only would this set a positive tone for each class, and therefore make the experience of learning more enjoyable, it would help create a habit of developing greater presence both inside and outside of the classroom.