Matters to a Degree

Dr. Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury

Just before take-off, flight attendants give us an important life lesson: In the event of a change in air pressure, they tell us, put on your own oxygen mask first before you assist other people. The reason behind this is simple: To take care of others successfully, you have to take care of yourself first.

As a graduate student, that's not always easy to do. A survey conducted by APAGS staff and APA's Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance in 2009 found that 70 percent of graduate students reported at least one stressful event was impairing their optimal functioning. These stressors included academics, finances, relationships and health.

As psychology graduate students, you are no doubt well versed in the impact stress has on the body, yet like other busy people, you may fail to put yourself first. Here's some advice:

  • Find stress-busting strategies that work for you. Engage in regular exercise or guided meditation, which can improve your health and wellness. When I was in grad school, I played volleyball several times a week for exercise — and perhaps to work through a little anger I felt toward irritating faculty members.

  • Rely on your social support. Talking to classmates, friends and family are important strategies for self care. Stay in touch with your friends and colleagues. With social networking and other Internet tools such as Skype, it is easy to stay in contact with friends around the country, or even the world. According to our survey, this was the most common self-care strategy used by grad students.

  • Strive for balance. Your life is not just about academics, and you can't study 24/7. One strategy that works to maintain balance is to schedule a time each day for exercise and protect one night a week for a movie night with friends or a date night with your partner.

  • Seek out healthy role models. Find mentors who demonstrate healthy self-care behaviors, such as your faculty adviser, clinical supervisor or other faculty in your department. Learn their strategies for work-life balance.

  • Recognize the symptoms of stress. Sometimes self-care strategies are not enough, particularly if you're grappling with major life issues. Signs of stress include significant changes in mood, appetite, energy and sleep. If you observe these changes in yourself, seek professional assistance. As graduate students, you have lots of options. Your university counseling center probably provides free or low-cost individual or group psychotherapy. Or, you can tap your student health insurance's mental health coverage. If your health insurance doesn't offer enough coverage, seek out local mental health providers who are alumni of your program — they may offer low-cost psychotherapy to graduate students as a way of giving back to the field.

  • Be a role model. If you are a more advanced graduate student, help out other students with social support, friendly advice and other types of assistance. Undergraduates and less-advanced graduate students may look to you for guidance, so be sure to model healthy self-care and wellness strategies. For those in the health-service fields, learning self care is especially important because you'll probably end up suggesting these very strategies to your future clients.

For more information on self-care, visit Self-care Resources and the March 2005 gradPSYCH.