How to Manage Academic Stress

Don’t procrastinate it only makes things worse. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Get a good night’s sleep. 

All of these are vital—and common—pieces of advice that will help you manage all forms of stress, academic and otherwise.

As anyone who has struggled with academic stress likely knows, each of these points is easier said than done. What I think is often missing from such advice is an account of the mental and emotional hurdles that can get in the way of effective time and health management. 

Maybe you struggle with anxiety or depression, or maybe you have family or other health issues that make sleep or exercise really difficult to come by. Stress is often a symptom of circumstances that need their own forms of management.

But stress is also often a learned pattern of thinking, one that we need to unlearn if we’re going to get things done.

You’re Probably Wrong

“You cannot get stressed out unless you believe your thoughts,” explains Susan Stiffelman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. “All stress is precipitated by stressful thinking.”

Often, we convince ourselves that the tasks ahead of us are more difficult than they need to be. If you’re a perfectionist especially, you probably impose impossibly high standards on yourself and your work that may engender procrastination. 

After all, why spend the next 30 minutes trying to produce absolutely perfect work when you can just let your mind wander on Snapchat?

When Stiffelman warns against believing your own thoughts, she is suggesting that we question our assessments of what we have in front of us. Next time you’re stressed out over an exam, a paper, or college applications, try listing reasons why your assessment of the situation might be incorrect.

Do you have a record of academic success? Have you succeeded in the past on projects that you found daunting? If the answer to either of these is “yes,” then there’s a good chance you’ve misread your current situation. 

Sometimes, there’s freedom in getting things wrong.

Break It Down

But even if you are correct, and if what lies ahead is very difficult work, pausing to consider why a given project is difficult—and writing out the reasons—often reveals a range of sub-tasks that are far less difficult than the project as a whole.

This is why Stiffelman also advises breaking tasks down into small chunks.

In my own experience, to-do lists are lifesavers. List out the tasks ahead and break these down into the smallest possible tasks.

One student of mine wrote out everything she needed to do on sticky notes and then threw the notes away as she completed each task. But if you want to avoid wasting paper—and I think you should—an app like Todoist is just as good for laying out a roadmap and for checking off items as you go.

Timing is Everything

Let’s say you need to write an important paper for an English class. Your to-do list might look something like this:

  1. Read the assignment [Monday]
  2. Decide which text(s) I’m going to focus on [Monday]
  3. Read my notes on that text [Tuesday]
  4. Find 3-4 quotations from the text that seem relevant [Tuesday]
  5. Draft a thesis [Tuesday] 
  6. See if the thesis goes well with the quotations I’ve chosen [Tuesday]
    • If not, find other quotations or revise the thesis
  7. Draft an introduction [Wednesday] 
  8. Draft the first body paragraph [Wednesday] 
  9. Draft the second body paragraph [Thursday]
  10. Draft the third body paragraph [Thursday]
  11. Draft the fourth body paragraph [Thursday] 
  12. Draft the conclusion [Thursday]
  13. Review my topic sentences [Friday]
  14. Review my transitions [Friday]
  15. Read the entire draft [Friday]
    • Check that the body paragraphs correspond with the thesis
    • Check that the body paragraphs proceed in a logical order
  16. Make necessary revisions [Saturday]
  17. Proofread the essay [Saturday]

Writing an entire paper can seem daunting, but reading the assignment is easy. Deciding which text to focus on isn’t too hard, either. Even drafting a thesis isn’t all that bad. Taken together, writing an entire paper might seem like a difficult task. But, when broken into small chunks, the job is much simpler than it seems.

Notice that I’ve given each task a day of the week. It’s important to recognize that your time is limited. If you give yourself a rough timeline, you can kind of mechanize the process a bit and give yourself peace of mind that you’re on track. Remember to stay flexible—adjust as you go, when needed, since some tasks might be more difficult than you first anticipated.

Treat Yourself to Train Yourself

Keep yourself motivated by giving yourself a reward for each task or pair of tasks that you knock off your to-do list. 

You’re always practicing, always training yourself. You’re not all that different from a dog who learns how to do tricks. Just like a poodle, you need positive reinforcement to train your mind and body that getting things done is good.

If you practice being anxious with a stomach ache while writing, you’ll get really good at being anxious with a stomach ache while writing. But if you practice breaking writing down into small sub-tasks and rewarding yourself—with dessert or a video game or something else you love—you’ll learn to associate getting things done with feeling good.

In sum: change your thinking, make to-do lists, chart out a rough schedule, and reward yourself along the way. 

But of course, remember to avoid procrastinating, eat well, exercise regularly, and get a good night’s sleep. Those truisms are true, after all.