A Portrait of the Scientist Maintaining Her Zen

Traditionally, labor day marks the beginning of the season when sh*t hits the academic fan. Grants are due, Deans present you with “opportunities to make your voice heard” on important committees, seminars pick up again and bite into your bench time, and maybe you’ve even decided to take or audit a class! In the spirit of making it through to the holidays with sanity intact, here are some stress management tips from us at PSYW. What are your tips? Feel free to add to the list in the comments!


Writing about stress management is a challenging exercise for me.  I feel like I should be a pro at this, but alas I am not.  I definitely have a lot of anxiety, and over the years, I have strived to channel it in proper/creative/positive outlets.  Sometimes it worked, other times not so much.  Hopefully, I will be able to recap some of the things that have helped me.  In addition to the really wonderful comments below regarding stress management, I would like to start with a few of my own:

Self reflection   

What helped me through times of stress was trying to understand what it was I really was stressed about.  For example, if I had a deadline that was causing me to feel anxious, I would ask questions like, “what is it about this particular deadline that is making me feel worried?”  I knew that I would finish it on time, but why all the unnecessary feelings of unease?  Was it because I wanted to make sure I could impress my boss or my colleagues with the quality of the final product?  Was it because if I missed the deadline, I would suffer consequences, for example judgement from those whose opinions I value?  Was it because deep down I suffer from impostor syndrome, and that little voice in my head would insist on telling me that “see, you shouldn’t be here, you can’t even produce in time for this deadline.”  Breaking down this feeling of anxiety, acknowledging it and trying to understand the underlying intensity of feelings would help me digest the situation piece by piece and ease the tension.


Generally identifying what helps one bring down the temperature of the day to a steady state is tremendously helpful in managing stress.  Furthermore, taking time to indulge, to allow time to stand still and thoroughly dive in that pool of emotion that makes you feel good.  It can be small or large, but the effects can be lasting and deeply beneficial.  For me personally, I so covet the time with my friends on the weekends.  Every time I get together with them, I feel energized, happy and content – I carry this afterglow of positive energy for days on after.  The little things throughout the week to keep me balanced and centered, are typically like a walk outside, feeling the sun on my skin or the warmth of green grass on my bare feet, watching the dragonflies do their dance around a marshy pond, watching toddlers play in the sand.  Other things that make me happy are listening to podcasts by my favorite speakers (Tara Brach, Alan Watts, Tim Ferris) to and from work, cuddling with my four year old boys in the evening before bedtime, playing with my cats, drinking wine and watching our favorite shows at night with my husband once the boys are asleep, spending time in nature (hiking, camping, running), taking photos of the gorgeous Pacific Northwest outdoors – are all of the things on my list that make me feel oh so good.


This is an obvious choice for helping with stress, be it seeing a therapist, starting medical treatment, or trying cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  But it’s not as simple as a “one pill treats all ailments.”  You really have to commit.  And it takes time.  Finding the right therapist or life coach with whom you have a deep meaningful connection can be very difficult, but so rewarding once you succeed.  That person can really help you unleash your potential and create a kinder space to help you find ways to regard yourself with empathy and respect.  Medical interventions can also be very helpful, however the stigma around seeking mental health help still exists.  Although I feel like things are getting better on that front.  Perhaps, finding a combination that works for each individual might be the proper approach.  For me, it has been seeing a brilliant, kind, thoughtful therapist in concert with deep breathing, meditation and acupuncture (I am sort of obsessed with the latter, perhaps I should write a whole post about it!) have helped me most.     


I schedule my time obsessively – so that I can not think about anything but fun in my free time

I know most of us are list-makers and schedulers, but I think I carry it a little farther than most. My Google calendar reflects exactly what I’m doing, down to the half-hour, for every time in my work and housework day. If I can’t get to something (or more often don’t want to) I just drag it to the next day or week and don’t feel bad about it – it’s on my calendar, therefore it will get done. More importantly, since I know everything is already scheduled and planned to the best of my ability, I will not even think of it or feel like something is hanging over my head when I’m experiencing that precious blank time on my calendar.

I never take work home (except when I do)

This might be more of a talent than a tip, but I completely drop all thoughts of work when I walk out the door. I’ve accomplished what I wanted to for the day, or put it on my calendar for another time in the future, and now I don’t have to think about it at all. Of course things do arise that just don’t fit into the regular work day or need to get done ASAP, so when that happens I put it on my get it done, but I don’t let it bother me that it’s taking time away from something else – it’s just the next thing on my list and I’m checking it off, no stress.


Reality (Therapy)

My ideal system would involve exercise, yoga, meditation, and reserving time for me to do things I enjoy like cooking and knitting. But, LOL, I have a toddler and I’m trying to finish my PhD. I have no time, and I tend to put socializing above exercising, for better or worse. So, hopefully I can figure out how to fit in exercise soon, but this is what I do now. Most of my tips come straight from my therapist. I am working on recognize anxiety, recurring stressful patterns of thought (ruminating), and other unhealthy mental thought loops. When I catch myself generating stress in this way, I call myself out (ie, you’re ruminating and it’s not productive). Acknowledging and recognizing the stress-generating pattern of thought goes a long way for me towards stopping it. A classic stress-maker for me is any annoying but important meeting with university administration. For example, when I was trying to save my dependent benefits from getting cut last year, I would get extremely stressed in advance of meetings and spend time and energy playing out what I would say in different scenarios. This generated a lot of extra anxiety, and made the whole thing more difficult. And it was pointless. Any meeting is just a conversation once it gets going. I can not read people’s minds to know what they’ll actually say, and going into a meeting as a stressed out mess makes it difficult to listen. After some really miserable meetings, I recognized that I was exacerbating my anxiety by ruminating and was able to pretty much get it under control to get through an awful meeting with a university finance guy and a VP without crying or agreeing with them. I see the free, on-campus, student health therapists regularly. They are pros. And we have subsidized dependent health coverage on a university sponsored plan for one more year, no thanks to the finance guy.

Done > Almost Done

In terms of my daily work in the lab, there is certainly a significant amount of stress generated by the PhD process. It forces me to be largely self directed and motivated. The dark side of that, of course, is when you’re not making progress it feels like a personal failing. My most useful (and only) strategy here is to break things down into tiny attainable chunks. I combine that with my mantras, “No one cares about things that are almost done” and “Done > Almost Done” to try to keep all the projects progressing and keep closing out parts of a project that are done by making a small figure and adding it to the folder called “Dissertation”.


Beyond the lab, I try to socialize when I can – maybe that’s why I feel like I have no time for exercise – and combine networking and socializing whenever possible to keep one eye on the future. I have a habit of overscheduling myself (and now my son). When I do that, a fun weekend turns into a harried race from one activity to the next and all the fun activities become stressful obligations. After the birth of my son, it became super important to be sure we all get downtime every day.  For us, limiting the number of activities to one scheduled activity per weekend day is the best way to make sure so one gets overstimulated and cranky. Sounds sounds like a nice problem to have – too much fun! – but it was making me stressed out. Now it no longer does, I get time for myself, my son gets a nap at the same time every day, and we all get unstructured time. I should have instituted an inflexible weekend naptime and a one activity per day rule when I was 25.



Like those above, having things scheduled and on a to do list helps me not worry about them. I do not schedule most things down to the hour like SweetScience, but I do break things into chunks and put everything I know I have to do on a to-do list or on my calendar. Having a sense of what I have to do each day and what portion of the day I’d like to get them done makes me able to focus on each thing at it’s time and not worry about the rest.


I am by no means a yogi, but I enjoy doing yoga when I have time and I like to carry the breathing practiced in yoga to my day. I learned a lot of yogi breathing techniques in preparing for my labors sans pain medication. One of my favorite breathing exercises is to take slow breaths, feeling each successive breath in a different part of my lungs. Doing this several times a day adds no time (do it in the elevator, while writing, anytime) brings relaxation to my body and peace to my mind.


Sometimes I get anxious about how I am not exceeding in areas of life as much as I would like (the house is a mess! I don’t make as much money as I should! I don’t do enough creative activities with my children! …I know, ugh!). The thing that helps me most with this type of anxiety is active recognition of what I do have. I have a beautiful house. I have a wonderful family. I have a job I don’t hate that makes enough money. I live in a beautiful place. Just recognizing all the things I have to be grateful for is sometimes enough to keep the demons at bay. Again, this is a thing that can be done during other activities and thus adds no time to my busy schedule.

rest + exercise

I exercise several times weekly and try to make sure I get enough sleep. I think that these things are really important for mental health and general happiness and are not worth compromising on. I am not myself without rest and exercise, and reminding myself of that helps me get up at 5:30am to run in the dark and go to sleep at a reasonable hour even though there are sometimes things I’d rather (or maybe should) do.



This topic makes me shudder. There have definitely been times in my life where I have felt frantic and overwhelmed in academia, and somehow, I always got through it. I certainly don’t feel like I have a strategy to advise, because it seemed I was always changing my strategy. I would try listing things for a while, but my problem with that is that I would always end up putting things that are too big on the list – like “finish manuscript”, and that task took weeks and weeks. My list would become so long that it would end up making me feel sick, and I would throw it away. So, “break things down into tiny attainable chunks” seems like pretty solid advice that would have served me well.

Harnessing productivity

My current strategy is to take advantage of moments where I am feeling highly motivated and productive, and knock out as much as I can in those moments. I know myself enough know to know that those usually occur in the mornings, so I plan for the harder to tackle tasks every day in the morning, and save the more repetitive, easier, or rewarding things for the afternoon.

Always, though, is the underlying need for balance in my life to deal with the stress. Like peirama, exercise is key. It seems that the more exercise I get, the more energy I have.

I can’t do it all myself

For the times that the stress got really bad, I found it useful to seek the help of outside, neutral people. As a postdoc, the thing that helped me a ton was a bi-weekly massage. It sounds ridiculous and stuck-up, but it really did wonders for my mental health and balance. I always felt so relaxed after that, and it really made a difference in how I approached problems and tasks. And also, there are times I have gotten very down on myself for not succeeding like I should, and having a psychologist or therapist to talk to helped me put things in perspective. I thought of those conversations as adding tools to my toolbox.


This is not my area of expertise — I thrived on putting myself in worst possible circumstances.  I was a master of procrastination and wasting time.  Maybe this was okay as a student, postdoc, and project scientist.  Yea, maybe I would not have survived as a professor…  When I was under much pressure and panic, CHOCOLATE helped.
I think we can all agree on that last one! What are your stress prevention tips or coping mechanisms? Leave a comment!

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