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The signs of stress and trigger factors

Signs of stress may be triggered by several factors, both private and work-related. To help you identify the possible signs of stress, we have provided the following tools for you:

  • a list of common causes of stress during a PhD project
  • a questionnaire for you to test your current situation
  • suggestions on how to cope with your (potential) stress situation

Remember that you are always welcome to reach out to:

Common causes of stress for a PhD student

Stress is most often caused by a combination of several work-related factors, including the individual’s private life and his or her own expectations and demands (see figure to the right). Some of the common causes of stress during a PhD project can be:

  • Excessive work pressure - heavy workload, difficult tasks, and/or unrealistic deadlines in combination with low control over the pace of work, the timing of breaks, or the use of skills.
  • Work-family conflict - limitless work life that entails working around the clock and at weekends. Taking work home or working at night. Lack of sleep due to work pressure or young children.
  • Self-doubt - feeling lost, with no idea where you are heading and uncertainty about how well you are doing.
  • Loneliness and isolation - due to the competition (often) inherent in the academic environment, a PhD project can feel like a lonely journey. Moreover, being busy and intensely focused on a project can lead to isolation from friends and family.
  • Worries about future career - competition for a limited number of jobs can lead to daily worries about possibly not making it to the dream career.
  • Supervisor difficulties - miscommunication, workload pressure, differences in personality or “hands-off” leadership style from a supervisor can make the supervision experience challenging.

To find a work-life balance, you should try to be aware of the following domains; self, work, family and friends. A typical pitfall is that work spills over into private life and causes conflict or difficulties in getting the other domains to function in a satisfactory way.

Test your stress and learn more about the signs of stress

Even when we are thriving and feeling well, it is natural to experience brief periods of stress, for example in the period up to an important deadline or an exam. As long as the stress is temporary, it is an appropriate reaction that helps us to overcome strain.

Long periods of stress can trigger a number of physical and psychological symptoms that may have a negative impact on work capacity and health. The table below shows some of the most typical symptoms of stress. You can also find a printable PDF version of the table here.

If stress is not reduced and a balance re-established, stress can have more serious consequences and constitute a genuine threat to both health and work capacity. Even though stress affects the individual, the person’s surroundings play an important role, and factors in both private life and work life can either aggravate stress or help protect against it.

Source: Danish Health Authority, leaflet on stress, 2007

Learn more about stress:
Read more about typical warning signs and symptoms of stress overload (unhealthy stress) on the AU HR website "Understanding stress".

Coping strategies

If you experience stress or workload pressure, it is important to address (cope with) the issue early on and in the right way. There is no one-size-fits-all coping strategy. It’s all about choosing the right strategy(ies) for your specific stress situation. If you can do something about the problem yourself, it’s always a good idea to try and do so. If the problem is out of your own control, it may be an idea to seek help or support from your network and/or try and reduce the discomfort by seeking calm and/or exercising.

There are generally three adaptive types of coping strategies:

  • Take action to reduce the workload (solve the problem): negotiate demands/deadlines, clarify your own role and expectations for a task, clarify the amount of work required and set priorities, say 'no' to additional tasks/activities, stop working outside normal working hours.
  • Seek help and support: tell others that you are under pressure and ask your supervisor/colleagues/friends/family for help and support.
  • Exercise, diversion and calm: make room for breaks/exercise/stress-relief, work from home, prioritise sleep and rest during the week.
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