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7 self-care tips for graduate students

Wednesday, February 28, 2018
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7 self-care tips for graduate students
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Graduate student life can be demanding, full of pressures to keep up with heavy workloads, meet tight deadlines, make professional and academic connections and publish research. Not to mention, many students have a job outside of their program, which can add extra stress. These and other pressures can cause graduate students to push themselves beyond their limits and neglect taking care of their own well-being. 

In fact, a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin found that 43 percent of graduate students say they are experiencing more stress than they can deal with

It is important that graduate students prioritize taking care of their well-being while in school. Overexertion only leads to burnout and potentially health problems, and isn't sustainable. 

Here are seven self-care tips for graduate students:

1. Eat well 
Instant noodles may be cheap, but they're far from the nutritious fuel your body and brain need to function. Make a shopping list at the beginning of the week of healthy, wholesome foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and whole grains. Busy schedules can also lead to frequently ordering delivery or hitting the fast food drive-thru, so prepare meals in bulk on Sunday so you have them on hand throughout the week. Healthy meals need not be expensive - there are many basic dishes you can create that are nutritious and can be made on a budget. Be sure to pack healthy snacks with you like nuts, trail mix, granola bars and fresh and dried fruit to fuel you throughout a long day. 

2. Improve your sleep hygiene 
The optimal amount of sleep you should get is seven to nine hours of sleep each night. This amount is critical to giving your brain the time it needs to process new information it learned during the day and rejuvenate itself. Skimping on sleep adds up and will inevitably negatively affect your memory and comprehension skills.

There are other steps you can take to improve the quality of your sleep, too, so you feel more energized in the morning. These tips and tricks relate to "sleep hygiene" and include:

  • Avoiding using your phone, watching TV or using any digital screens at least an hour before you go to bed. The "blue light" emitted by electronic devices can keep your brain revving after you hit the sack. 
  • Don't drink caffeinated beverages or eat sugary foods at night. 
  • Draw the blinds and lower the thermostat so you sleep in a cool, dark room. 
  • Have a relaxing bedtime wind-down routine: Read a book, take a warm bath or shower, write in a journal or have a cup of decaf tea. 
sleepYour brain can't function well if it you're not getting enough sleep.

3. Don't be afraid to say 'No'
There can be a lot of pressure to say yes to every luncheon, workshop and extracurricular in graduate school, but it's important that you protect your own time first and foremost. Don't spread yourself too thin by saying yes to every invitation if you really don't have the time or bandwidth to attend. As Inside Higher Ed noted, you can't do everything, so pick and choose only the events, activities and projects most essential to your happiness. 

4. Disconnect 
Filling every moment of your waking hour with coursework and research isn't sustainable - it'll only lead to burnout. It's important to schedule time to relax and enjoy your favorite hobbies throughout your week. Make time to disconnect from textbooks and go on a nature walk, see a movie at the theater, treat yourself to a nice meal out, paint, listen to music or do any other activity that brings you joy, boosts your mood and helps your brain unwind. As PhDStudent advised, make sure you have some time each day when you're not working. 

stressRegular exercise can boost your mood and help you deal with stress.

5. Exercise regularly 
Exercising regularly is essential to your overall health, both mental and physical. Working out can lift your mood, clear your mind and help you deal with stress. Build in time for fitness throughout your week. Be creative with how you find time for a workout - if you have classes late at night, an early morning exercise routine may work best. Or, you could work out on your lunch break. Twenty-four-hour gyms are also increasingly popular, giving you more flexibility with your fitness regimen. The key to sustaining an exercise program, however, is choosing an activity you enjoy doing. If you hate working out at the gym, don't force yourself to do it. Find a form of exercise you enjoy. It could be yoga, Pilates, barre, hiking, swimming, playing on a local softball league, tai chi - the options available to you are endless!

6. Connect with friends and family often
Social connections are integral to mental well-being. At least once or twice a week, meet up with a friend for coffee, dinner or another fun activity. If you're new in town and don't know many people yet, check out social events at your university or those held by community organizations in your city. It's also important to maintain relationships with those close to you back home - FaceTime with friends and family or set up times for regular phone chats. 

7. Learn better strategies for coping with stress 
There are many unhealthy ways that people deal with stress, and often its related anxiety can lead to the stress snowballing and becoming even more disruptive. Part of good self-care is learning better ways for managing stress and anxiety.  Find healthy ways to diffuse stress, such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises or doing an activity that helps you unwind. Learn to avoid negative thought patterns, such as catastrophic thinking and excessive worrying.

But as the American Psychological Association notes, you should be aware of signs that your stress has reached a more intense level. These signs can include major changes in your sleep quality, energy levels, eating habits or mood. Reach out to a professional therapist or counselor if you're exhibiting these signs - many universities offer counseling and mental health services and support for graduate students. 

Being in graduate school is an exciting time, but it also can come with many demands and stresses. The most important part of being a graduate student, however, is staying healthy. Put self-care front and center to protect your mental and physical well-being while in school. 

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