“Did You Cure Cancer Last Month?” Stress in Academia

Stress in Academia | New Faculty


Stress is the imaginary, yet real, elephant in the room. No one wants to actually admit how stressed out they are, we just go into our caves where we eat our feelings, drink them, push our stress onto those we love (and hate), and continue to swallow it without doing much about it. Some say that meditation or exercise can help, but what can we do on the back end to help make life a little less stressful from the time we rise out of our coma-like sleep?

HBR ran an article about 9 Ways to Reduce Stress and while I’d like for everyone to think that I ride on a magical unicorn throughout my day with nary a problem from an undergrad, grad student, or colleague without the occasional technology hiccup that eats my emails like Cookie Monster….I’ll just cut to the chase here and say it, “i’m effing stressed out.” So are you. Here’s HBR’s list:

  1. Have self-compassion.
  2. Remember the “Big Picture.” 
  3. Rely on routines.
  4. Take five (or ten) minutes to do something you find interesting.
  5. Add where and when to your to-do list.
  6. Use if-thens for positive self-talk.
  7. See your work in terms of progress, not perfection
  8. Think about the progress that you’ve already made.
  9. Know whether optimism or defensive pessimism works for you.

It’s a few weeks into a new semester and since my goal for 2013 is to stop being so generous with my time, I’m also working on different ways to figure out how to deal with the stress that comes in my life as a result of learning to ‘just say’no’ (like nancy reagan’s drug campaign) or when I say yes to a good, valuable project. I’d like to think that I internalize my stress pretty well, but if you talk to the woman who gives me a massage once a month, she would say otherwise. I may internalize my stress but it magically reappears in my shoulders, neck, spine, and hips. My masseuse jokes that she can always tell how stressful the prior three weeks were based on how hard she has to knead on me like bread dough. It’s funny because it’s true, it’s not funny because I shouldn’t be getting myself all wound up like a spring. Once she said to me, “girl, what happened to you last month? you cure cancer?” Clearly, it had been a busy month.

As I read through the HBR list of ways to reduce stress, I am missing #1. Missing it like I missed the broad side of a barn. I don’t give myself a break. Ever. Rarely. By missing out on #1, it sets me up to be less successful at #2-9 on the list.  Don’t get me wrong, I see the big picture, but I usually follow up with, “how come I’m not farther along?” or “I should be doing more about XYZ.” See the pattern? Lifehacker sent me to this blog post about offering up more margin for _____ in life.

The one thing I am pretty good at is routine. I love my routine of waking, reading, working, working out, and working some more on most days. I don’t have a booming closet with racks of choices unless you count cords or trousers as a choice nor do I keep more than three ‘lunch’ choices on hand to pack because I will stand in front of the open refrigerator until I hear my mothers voice in my head saying, “you’re cooling the whole kitchen.” I go to bed within the same half hour time frame each night and usually wake around the same time each day with no alarm. I know, I sound old, but I really love routine in my life and it echoed similar sentiment of the HBR post with some other aspects pointed out. The most successful person at work is often less successful at home and finding that balance is what many of us strive for during our entire lives when we should just be giving ourselves a break and going to the kids’ soccer game.

There’s always room for improvement and while HBR is not my personal bible, it is a timely and relevant post for me and probably many of you. I’m going to incorporate some of these into my goal of my time this year and look to give myself a break more and begin to look at progress more instead of product. It is difficult in our society to measure our worth if there’s no product. We’ve become so ‘end focused’ that we’re killing ourselves in the meantime. Media and society do it too. No one talks about the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into a pro-athlete, a Rhodes Scholar, or the design of the newest gadget, but only see the end product of the medal, the lectures, or the packaging before it gets ripped open. Lest we not forget about the cheating, plagiarism  and other negative consequences around us.

What on HBR’s list would you work on? How can you, as a scholar, faculty, or student begin setting up good habits for longevity?

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