You are a bridge (I promise this will make sense!). A bridge has multiple types of vehicles on it every day. These vehicles can look alike or different, but the bridge is designed to carry them while they drive in a smooth, orderly fashion. But what happens when the vehicles are stopped in traffic? Does the bridge feel that weight? Absolutely! There is a point at which a bridge can no longer handle the weight (or stress) of all of its vehicles. This puts the bridge at risk of collapse. You can do one of two things when a bridge is inundated with vehicles: remove some of the vehicles or build greater support for the bridge.
As graduate students and/or new professionals, stress is a concept that is basically part of our lifestyle. But that doesn’t have to be a negative thing--some stress is good stress! We carry our vehicles every day, oftentimes vehicles that bring us fulfillment and joy, so we must be able to manage them in effective ways. Our health, studies, and clients depend on us remaining fully functioning and upright bridges! Here are a few stress management tips to keep in your back pocket.
Understand your stress
Knowing what stress is, specifically your stress, allows you to have a critical level of self-awareness and insight. Think of it as when you get sick and develop a fever. The fever is a sign that something isn’t quite right with your body, so you need to address it. Stress is the same way. If you know what to look for when you are stressed, it becomes easier to manage it. If it is weighing you down, that means you could benefit from figuring out a different way to manage it. So, what are your signs of “fever” stress?
Take care of yourself (sleep, eating, exercise, meditation, counseling)
As budding counselors and/or new counselors, we know the importance of self-care! But how often do we live it? Self-care and wellness are multidimensional, so there are many ways that we can make sure that we are living it constantly. Sleeping enough hours in the night (7-9 is recommended for most adults!), eating a well-balanced diet (and I don’t mean balancing pizza boxes…), and engaging in regular exercise (about 30 minutes a day is recommended) are crucial for feeling like ourselves on a daily basis. Taking care of our bodies in this way makes it more possible for us to take care of our minds. The mind-body connection is real! Taking some time for meditation is helpful as well. And don’t forget the number one tool in a counselor’s toolbox--personal counseling! We can’t fill our bucket with our clients’ presenting issues if we don’t have a way to siphon off some of our own. Seeing our own counselor is a great way to do this.
Schedule! Schedule! Schedule!
Time management is a big part of stress management. When we know what we are doing and when we are doing them, our tasks become more digestible. Personally, my paper planner (yes, I said paper) is my lifeline. It’s what helps me know that I am going to have enough hours in the day to exercise, eat well, socialize, and complete my work. Find a system that works for you in helping to manage your schedule and stick to it! It could be a desk calendar, reminders on your phone, Post-it notes all over your bedroom, whatever helps you to know what you need to do and what you want to do. Self-care doesn’t just happen. Practicing intentionality makes it happen, so keeping a schedule of both self-care and responsibilities can go a long way in helping to manage stress.
Reach out for support
Stress does not have to be a solo venture. In fact, it shouldn’t be a solo venture. Humans are social beings, and we need each other! Isn’t that one reason we are counselors? We may be strong as individuals, but that can only take us so far when we feel bogged down by stress. Support systems provide stability and understanding. You may have multiple support systems that help you meet different needs. Let them help you when stress is getting the best of you. As counselors, we are familiar with helping others. Don’t forget to let someone help you for a change!
Create healthy coping strategies
Part of self-awareness involves knowing what strategies work in helping you to manage stress. You also want strategies that you can keep returning to time and time again. A healthy coping strategy will give reprieve from what is stressing you, but not so much reprieve that you are not able to address the situation. We need to work through stress; unhealthy strategies, like substance use, act as barriers in doing so. Find what works for you and go back to it! The great thing about coping strategies is that they can be practically anything! I recently started painting as a way to engage parts of my brain I rarely use and to relieve stress. My husband likes to set up a hammock in our backyard and rest in nature. Be creative!
We feel stressed when we perceive our boundaries as violated or if we feel unable to communicate them to others. When you’re able to create and hold your boundaries, stress can be significantly reduced. It’s important to know your limits and take responsibility for setting them. Family, friends, clients, and co-workers may all try to push your boundaries at some point. Creating a healthy distance between yourself and others, enough for psychological freedom but not so much that you are detached, allows us to not create additional stress. Visual imagery helps me here. I picture a beautiful white picket fence. It’s just high enough to keep out what doesn’t need to be let in, but also inviting enough to allow people to approach.
Know what you can and cannot do in the time you are able to do it. While we want to strive to be the best versions of ourselves, those “best versions” also come with a disclaimer: it’s a human version! Being realistic about your abilities cultivates self-compassion. Self-compassion can be a powerful aid in stress management.
Taking care of others means, first and foremost, taking care of ourselves. We are less effective for clients when we aren’t firing on all cylinders. Stress is normal, and we are all capable of managing it effectively. I find it helpful to practice congruence--if I know it is in my clients’ best interests to practice healthy stress management techniques, surely I am worthy of practicing the same for myself.
Ariann Robino is a Board Certified Counselor, Licensed Professional Counselor in Louisiana, and doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech. She is the ACA Graduate Student Committee Co-Chair. Her research interests include the human-animal bond, animal-assisted interventions, addiction, criminal justice, and human development.
Graduate Student and New Professional Blog
We are all taking 12-15 credit hours per semester, participating in research opportunities, managing work schedules, maintaining a social/family life, or we just transitioned into our New Professional role and have no idea what we are doing! ACA’s Graduate Student and New Professional Blog offers real life vignettes of life, academics, and how to keep yourself afloat despite your crazy schedule. Any suggestions for what you would like to hear more about, please email the Graduate Student Committee at: ACAGradStudentCommittee@gmail.com
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