PhD Student Advising Articles written by Shannon E. Williams, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement at the Schar School

Stress Reduction. It’s the buzzword this high-pressure time of the semester. While it sounds like a laudable goal, how can you possibly slow down enough to take care of yourself with so many demands on your attention?

Driven students tend to redouble their already considerable effort when the pressure is on, and are dismayed to discover that sometimes those efforts yield fewer positive results. When a loved one or colleague tells you that relaxing would be good for you, you might think, “I don’t have time to relax! That’s just one more thing to do.” Despite the reality of diminishing returns, your inclination is to work harder still, trim away the so-called distractions, sleep less and produce more. Even if you could stop worrying about all of these projects, you think you might lose track of something important. Doesn’t a constant state of vigilance keep you on task?

In fact, the opposite seems to be true.

On the most simplistic level, your physiology knows what it is doing. The human body is well adapted to handle stress, as biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky describes in Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers. When a threat appears on the horizon, a series of chemical responses kicks in to prepare your muscles and mind to handle it. This is the fight-flight-freeze response that evolution has designed to keep you from becoming someone else’s lunch.

In the case of our ancestors, their bodies could return to a resting state if they survived the battle. In an ideal situation, a new set of physiological processes took over to help them recuperate and gather resources for the next big threat or opportunity. We have inherited this elegant but archaic system. Our biology has not evolved to deal with present-day stressors, which are more psychological than about physical survival.

The problem in today’s world (if you can call it a problem) is that you are not being chased by a grizzly bear. Instead, you have a deadline looming for your proposal draft, your rent is due, and you just agreed to co-write a paper for a conference in March before realizing that week is your kids’ spring break. The threats facing graduate students are persistent and intense. The reason the absence of an identifiable predator is problematic is that anticipating an unmet deadline still keeps your body on code-red status. It is as if that grizzly’s claws are millimeters from your back. Whether you are sitting on the metro or trying to get to sleep at night, you can smell her back there. You are in perpetual fight-flight-freeze mode, surging with the chemicals to prepare you for action. Your body does not realize you are free from immediate danger. It never has a chance to recuperate.

In this hyper-vigilant state, your brain function narrows and ultimately cannot adjust to the tasks at hand. Even if you could eliminate stress from your life, stress reduction is not a perfect solution. Within certain constraints, some stress is actually good for learning. The timing, magnitude, and type of stress all affect how you learn and perform. “The notion that stressful events can have both faciliatory and detrimental effects on performance of cognitive or perceptual tasks is viewed as an extension of the inverted U or Yerkes-Dodson Law, which suggests that performance of a given task deteriorates if arousal levels are below or above an optimal level.” (Kofman 2006)

In other words, the Goldilocks Rule is at work. You have to feel enough pressure to be a little anxious but not so much you are consumed by it. The stress should be just right.

Stress directly related to the learning activity enhances performance. This is constructive stress. Imagine you are trying to master a new statistical method just before an exam. When you apply the method, you perform better than someone who studied it but was not worried about it. Your brain chemistry is well suited to handle the focus and time pressures required for the task.

However, if the stress takes place too far in advance of the learning activity, is unrelated to material at hand, or is prolonged, performance drops. If a part of your mind is still ruminating on your upcoming conference presentation while you are studying (or if you are trying to squeeze in studying between conference sessions), this destructive stress gets in the way of learning. The brain appears to memorize the stress itself instead of the material. Instead of storing the chi-squared test, your brain holds on to the worries, distracting you from learning. “Stress enhances memory if it is experienced within the context of the learning episode but impairs memory if it is experienced outside the learning context.” (Schwabe et al. 2012) Memory consolidation and learning processes can be enhanced by stress. Retrieval and application processes are impaired by it.

Brain chemistry complicates this cognitive puzzle. In a high-pressure situation, the body releases several varieties of hormones. Catecholamines take charge of the short-term and rapid effects. A sub-set of glucocorticoids have delayed and longer lasting effects. The constant presence of those glucocorticoids may have damaging long-term consequences. If you are the kind of person who finds neurochemistry journals to be soothing bedtime reading, Schwabe’s article in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews provides a good overview of the research.

So, how should you respond when your colleagues or loved ones suggest that you ease up? Recognize it as a well-meant but incomplete suggestion.

If you have to choose a single tool to manage the brain and body’s dizzying complexity under stress, aim for cognitive adaptability, or “coping responses built around fixed rules and flexible strategies.” Sapolsky explains, “This requires that we fight a reflex common to most of us. If something bad is happening and our attempts to cope are not working, one of our most common responses is to, well, go back in there and just try twice as hard to cope in the usual way. Although that sometimes does the trick, that’s rare. During times of stress, finding the resources to try something new is really hard and often just what’s needed.” (Sapolsky 1994)

What is the take-away message? Notice the diminishing returns and shift gears. Be intentional about how you work and adjust your approach depending on the unique objectives of each task. A little stress related to your upcoming exam is good but driving yourself like you would a dog team may hinder your performance. Give your body and brain time to recover. For long term success, press the pause button on the academic work for a bit every day.

Bear in mind that even if the deadlines are real, your career and ultimate survival do not hinge on this one task. You do yourself and your dissertation a good turn by taking the long view. Give yourself permission to step away from the computer, walk around the block, or cook a decent meal. You do not need to feel guilty doing so; it is part of performing better. If you notice the internal judge pestering you about it, remind yourself that the evidence is in. You improve your scholarly contribution by taking a break.

In a future post, I will offer up some more information on maintaining wellness when the pressure is on.


Kofman, OraMeiran. 2006. “Enhanced Performance on Executive Functions Associated with Examination Stress: Evidence from Task-switching and Stroop Paradigms.” Cognition & Emotion 20 (5) (August): 577–595. pbh.

Sapolsky Robert M. 1994. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: a Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Schwabe, Lars, Marian Joëls, Benno Roozendaal, Oliver T. Wolf, and Melly S. Oitzl. 2012. “Stress Effects on Memory: An Update and Integration.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 36 (7): 1740–1749. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.07.002.