stress and the writing body

There are suggestions that academic life is pretty stressful compared with other professional occupations (see The Guardian HE Network on this). And it is a truism to suggest that the process of doctoral and post doctoral education is stressful. It seems to be built into the process. But equally, it’s pretty widely accepted that stress is not all bad and some level of stress and anxiety actually helps us get things done. The question of course is how much stress is too much.

In doctoral research there are some predictable points of stress. It’s tough working out the research question. Even when you know what it is, getting the actual question wording right can be very difficult. Manipulating the literatures into shape can be tricky. Coming back from working in the library or the field with a mass of data which need to be wrestled into results can be a nightmare. Working out how the dissertation text is going to hang together around some kind of big idea, or set of ideas, can be pretty tough-going.

Then there’s the other kind of stress that’s related to meeting external deadlines and people passing judgment on your work, particularly in peer review and in bids. Waiting and then dealing with the comments are generally about as far from relaxing as can be. Or, if you are like me, there’s the stress that’s self-inflicted, which comes from taking on too many things at once. It’s/I’m the research equivalent of the “pelican whose eyes hold more than his belly-can.”

Apart from my own back problems, the reason I know that dealing with stress is critically important is because I have seen it overwhelm doctoral and post doctoral researchers. If stress isn’t, or actually can’t be dealt with, the worst case scenario is that the work isn’t finished. This is dreadful, and it happens when anxiety and stress manifest as really debilitating physical problems. I still feel real sadness that a really good piece of research will only partially be communicated because the doctoral researcher I was working with just couldn’t overcome a serious stress-related illness. We and her doctor all tried very hard, but it just didn’t happen.

Now while the answer to academic stress is a big and political one, it’s important that we also try to take charge of the stress in our own lives, rather than hang around literally tying ourselves in knots waiting for the revolution. My partner Randy Barber sees a lot of people whose stress becomes more permanently etched in their bodies. Here’s what he says we need to do.

Stress undoubtedly contributes to the work related soft tissue injuries commonly experienced by computer users. The strain put on postural muscles and joints from excessive computer use causes these tissues to “tense up”. It’s the body’s way of protecting itself from harm. This muscular tension adds to your stress levels.

At the same time, the need to meet deadlines, deal with the demands of supervisors and fellow workers and cope with increasing workloads in times of tight budgets all contribute to the general level of stress. Often this stress is “stored” in the body through muscular tightening, typically around the shoulders, neck and jaw but also in other areas. Pretty soon, a vicious loop is formed whereby physical stress from keyboard use is adding to mental and emotional stress, and vice versa. The results can be irritability, fatigue, sleeplessness, and many other unwelcome symptoms which affect your work and leisure time.

Fortunately, there are many techniques available to break this cycle and reduce stress levels. One is stretching and, if that’s all you do to combat the problem of stress on the job, then you’ll have taken an important step. However, there are many others ways you can reduce stress at work.

My all-time favourite resource is an inexpensive little book by the well-known author, Paul Wilson, called, “Instant Calm”. The reason I like this book so much is that it offers a multitude of simple steps anyone can take to relieve or reduce stress, many of which can be practised at work or in the car or just about anywhere. They all work; it’s just a matter of picking the ones that suit you and your circumstances.

Some of Paul Wilson’s quick anti-stress tips:

1. Breathe deeply
As you breathe in, feel your lower abdomen (not your chest) swell. Slow each breath down until you are breathing about 8-10 times a minute. Then listen to each breath coming and going.

2. Move slowly
Calm people move at a relaxed pace, speak at a relaxed pace, breathe at a relaxed pace. Consciously slow down these actions and you will become calm.

3. Relax your face
To relax the tension that gathers in the facial area, slightly raise the eyebrows (relaxes the brow muscles), place your tongue against the roof of your mouth (the jaw muscles), then smile (the cheek muscles).

4. Massage your feet
You can access the reflexology points that help you relax by pressing your fist in the hollow of your foot. Slowly press up as you breathe out.

5. Have a lavender bath
Add 5 drops of lavender oil to a warm bath, turn off the lights, and listen to your breathing. Better still, listen recordings designed to relax.

6. Press on your wrist
Apply a downward pressure to the acupressure point inside of your wrist – in line with your middle finger, two thumb widths from your palm – as you breathe out.

7. Walk
Any exercise will help you work off stress. For most of us, walking is the most relaxing exercise of all. Do it whenever you feel tense.

Do you have any other tips for managing academic stress?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic life, academic writing, computer, stress, stretching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to stress and the writing body

  1. Raphael says:

    Tip no 8: Work less. Plain and simple. More and more I come to believe this is the big elephant in the room in such discussions, which is rarely acknowledged (and if, then repackaged as another academic productivity hack)…


  2. Pingback: Stress and the writing body | Life as an academ...

  3. Yes – we do need to pay so much more attention to the, individual and collective, affective/emotional/psychological aspects of engagement in and with the academy – and their physical and behavioral impacts. All even more true when part of the fuckin’ academic precariat?


  4. I’ve tried to communicate with my department and supervisor about health issues for many months/years. I happen to think institutions have a lot too answer for.


  5. Kate Thomas says:

    Hi Pat, I’m exactly at the point you describe ie: ‘It’s tough working out the research question. Even when you know what it is, getting the actual question wording right can be very difficult. Manipulating the literatures into shape can be tricky’. In the midst of a particularly stressful period a couple of weeks ago, I posted Temporary Remedies for Worker Ants on my blog at and tried to follow my own advice. It did help.


  6. nicoleminix says:

    I’d like to add:
    -take a nap. Just like computers our body do need restart.
    – listen to songs you really like.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s