Grad School Stress Litmus Test


An actual litmus test.

Do you have a stress litmus test for grad school? If not, I would highly recommend thinking of one. It could be as simple as how many piles of laundry you haven’t done or how many cups of coffee you have in a day. Mine is how many unread emails I have in my inbox. I get hundreds of emails throughout the week, some important and some not– most, not. Having a full inbox stresses me out, so I try to keep it below 40 on any given day. When I have over 70 unread emails, I know I may be committing some stress-induced procrastination and avoiding my inbox; above 100 unread emails indicates that I need to pause and reevaluate my current life choices. I think I avoid my inbox because I associate new emails with more seeds in my ever-growing mental garden of Things I Must Do, and the thought adds to the internal panic. If I notice this anxiety creeping in, I will make a physical list of everything on my To-Do list, ranked by deadlines and difficulty. I feel more organized with a physical list all in one place and often realize it's not the massive horde of tasks I had envisioned.


So how do others notice stress in their lives? I asked some current and former grad students about their stress litmus tests, here are their responses.


“I do my dishes religiously, so a full sink is my litmus test. I also have a desk for letters and if I start to see that piling up with unread mail then I know I need to get myself together and tackle that.” -Phuong, who just got back from England! <3


“Mine includes some physical symptoms; I get a sharp pain in my side. I know some who get frequent nose bleeds or bleeding gums when they’re stressed. It’s pretty common for the body to become inflamed when stressed. But something less serious would be piled up dishes on the sink and hyper shopping on Amazon.” -Addis Gezahegn, Master of Social Work, University of Southern California


“Whether I'm getting consistent exercise is by far the biggest litmus test for me (e.g. roughly 3-5 times/week). My mental health is totally dictated by that. Whenever I am starting to feel the depression coming on, I know that means I need to stop whatever I'm doing and prioritize getting exercise- usually some kind of fast-paced cardio where I break a sweat. When I first started grad school, I didn't know how to step away from work and thought I needed to just spend more time on it, but I've found that it has always paid off to move/take care of my body and also feels like a very healthy way to cope with stress that allows me to be proud of myself and grounded in self-love. Now with a newborn and postpartum recovery though, this practice looks a lot different (and I am acknowledging that I have to take it slow), but I did get some quick yoga in this morning, and it is still a priority so I can do my best to take care of my daughter too!” -Ciana Luisa Lopez, PhD student in Bioengineering, University of Washington. Ciana recently published a paper on her work developing a platform to arm immune cell therapeutics with polymeric prodrugs. She also recently had a daughter, shortly after taking her general exam! It has been an eventful year for Ciana.


"Mine is definitely when multiple weeks of laundry are piled in my bedroom." -Rachel Qian, PhD student in Neuroscience, Emory University. You can follow Rachel on Twitter @bear_rach


“My main stress coping mechanism is exercise. I usually workout 5x per week, alternating through a mix of swimming, running, yoga, and weightlifting. Sometimes when I'm in a real push I'll skip a workout or two to work late or sleep or something. If I'm skipping more than that, I start to feel bad physically, emotionally, and mentally and that's a sign that I need to reset. When that happens I'll usually take a shorter work day to prioritize my workout above all else, to help get back into the groove. When I'm really feeling off I'll take a long weekend and go hiking or backpacking or cook something new. Sometimes I'll notice myself getting snippier with my partner when I'm stressed (or he will). I don't know if it's super healthy (and definitely a bummer for him!) but it's a pretty clear sign that I'm feeling overwhelmed and need to take a step back. I'll usually do one of the things I said earlier in that case, like getting in a good workout, taking a long weekend, going hiking, or cooking.” -Stephen Blaskowski, PhD student in Molecular Engineering, University of Washington. Stephen is part of the Armbrust lab studying biological oceanography.


“When stress is reaching its peak, I notice it by a drop in social events I am making time for and by how dirty both my lab bench and apartment are. I place all my energy into the stress and it leaves me with little time or motivation for anything else.” -Brittany Williams, PhD student in Pathobiology, University of Washington


“Dirty dishes are a big one for me. The bigger the pile, the worse off I am. One of our research associates said keeping to a regular schedule was a litmus test for himself. Another one from my lab (I turned your question into a discussion question with the lab, Ayumi) was eating or lack of eating during high stress periods. This was offered by an MD in my lab based on their experience in residency (from Dr. Eno-Obong Essien). My partner brought up lack of sleep as well as commitment to tasks either at work or friends.” -Marco Zamora, PhD student in Biomedical Engineering, Drexel University/University of Pennsylvania. Marco is co-advised by Dr. Jake Brenner and Dr. Kara Spiller. The Brenner lab is actively looking for postdocs!


“I second the dirty dishes! Dishes and quality of meals are my two. When things are going well, I’ll make food that I enjoy. When I’m stressed I might not feel like I have the energy to really cook or meal prep and/or dishes will start to pile up.” -Rebeca Stiepel, PhD student in Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of North Carolina.


“Mine is more of a litmus test for how much time I’ve spent working and haven’t had time off. The amount of audiobooks I’ve listened to in a month tells me about how much time off for mental health I didn’t take (i.e. I’ve listened to 40 books in a month before, which tells me I was working long days almost every day for that month).” -Rachel Wellington, PhD student in Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Washington. Rachel is co-advised by Dr. Brenner Doulatov and Dr. Brandon Hadland.


"Mine is when I haven't bought groceries in a month. It's like I'll suddenly regain consciousness when I look at my fridge space and realize I've been surviving off grapes and protein shakes. I'll be ordering food way too much." -Karen Serrano, PhD student in Plant Biology, University of California, Berkeley. You can follow Karen on twitter @Karen_Serrano9


“I know I need to sort of snap back to reality once I've let at least several tasks go uncompleted for days or weeks at a time, especially when the tasks are simple like responding to text messages or calling a friend or family member back.” -Evan Pepper, future Dr. Pepper of Molecular Engineering, University of Washington


"My stress litmus test is my workout routine. I typically go twice a week, but if I start missing, that's a sign I'm over-swamped." -Dr. Rick Liao, postdoc at Harvard University in the Mitragotri lab.


So what are your stress indicators? Let us know!