Achieving a “work/life balance” can be complicated given the multiple competing priorities most people deal with every day. Add school to the mix, and the balance becomes even more taxing.
Balancing success at work and school is tough, but prioritizing stress management can keep the challenge from becoming overwhelming. As Florida Tech psychology professor Dr. Natalie Fala says, “Just because you have a lot of demands on you it doesn’t mean you should stop taking care of yourself. That has to be primary.”
Keeping that in mind, online students can manage stress and practice self-care by trying a few of these tactics.
Acknowledge Your Stress
Florida Tech psychology professor Dr. Scott Whitacre says it’s important to understand that stress is a key part of the process. “Going to school can be stressful for many different reasons so I think the first thing you have to do is acknowledge it. I think you have to set some short-term objectives. What I usually try to ask my students to do in actually a message board post is tell me what’s the most stressful thing about being an online student and tell me some things that you can do to counteract that.”
Take a Break
Even stepping away for 20 minutes can bring a fresh perspective and stifle growing stress. The break shouldn’t turn into procrastination, but instead should be just long enough to reinvigorate. Give yourself permission to do something you enjoy.
Long-term, regular exercise yields both physical and mental health benefits, but a quick 20-minute session can provide an endorphin boost to combat stress. Fala says “Even if exercise isn’t our thing, just getting a little bit of walking in during the day, getting out in the sun and doing something [is important]. And exercise can be a social activity. You can bring a friend with you or be around other people in some sort of class or group.”
Exercise doesn’t have to be traditional or exhausting – a fast walk or dance around the room can do the trick if more structured exercise, like team sports, running or yoga, isn’t appealing.
Share stress with a trusted friend or family member who will offer encouragement and understanding. Fala also emphasizes that “your social support system is the number one protective factor. When we have a lot of stress going on, we often tend to isolate or avoid. What you should do is probably the exact opposite. Be around people who are your cheerleaders, who build you up, who say kind things to you. Definitely be around them because they’ll provide a buffer to stress.”
Intentional focus can help relax and re-focus perspective. Research shows that just like exercise, brief meditation provides instant benefits. Deep, focused breathing increases oxygen in the bloodstream and provides a sense of calm.
“It’s also important to do other things in moderation, such as drinking alcohol or eating unhealthy foods.” Fala notes. “We want to be mindful of our diet because our diet and our nutrition actually really play a role in emotional wellbeing, and help us manage our stress if we’re eating more healthy, nutritious-type foods. A lot of people think that just eating one big meal a day is the way to go, but really eating a bunch of small meals throughout the day so that we’re never getting to a period of starvation is actually more helpful for us.”
Eating fresh, healthy foods combats stress and boosts your immune system. Proper nutrition through regular meals also regulates energy levels and equips your mind function more clearly. Cut back on sources high in sugar or caffeine, which can lead to crashes, impede sleep and exacerbate stress.
Resting well at night restores your body and your mind, and equips you to deal more rationally with stress the next day. In the midst of deadlines and projects, a short nap can increase productivity.
Having a consistent sleep schedule “is really, really important,” according to Fala. “Trying to go to bed at the same time almost every night and getting up at the same time each day is really valuable, and we want to make sure that’s restful sleep.”
Take a Technology Detox
Between work and school, emails and social media, the constant presence of screens can exacerbate stress. Commit to fully unplugging – yes, even from Facebook – for a few hours. Doing so will help you feel refreshed the next day.
If something goes wrong, instead of dwelling on the mistake, adopt a positive outlook and instead outline what you learned and how you will approach the situation differently next time.
The feeling of something “hanging over” you can create undue stress. Instead of putting off the least-desirable task on the “to-do” list, tackle it first, and enjoy feeling free when it’s been completed.
Organization can keep you out of many stressful situations simply by preventing work right up against a deadline. By planning out due dates and commitments in advance, you’ll have ample time to get your work done effectively without pulling all-nighters or letting other things slide. Physically organizing your workspace to reduce clutter may also reduce stress.
Dr. Whitacre suggests that setting goals can help students feel less stressed: “I like to set goals a month at a time to try to help them feel more relaxed in the short term. And sometimes just doing that can be a tremendous boost or benefit.”
Manage Your Time
Learn to say no to build more space and flexibility into your schedule, and restrict your commitments to valuable things. That may mean saying no to an obligation to allow time for a fun activity that is a priority, or spending less time on an extracurricular activity so you can study.
Smile and Laugh
It sounds simple, but science shows changing your face – with a smile – can change your mood. Bringing a sense of humor to a stressful day or situation can alter your perspective and reduce stress. Fala says, “Overall, just do things that are meaningful to you, that are positive, that are grounding, and can make you smile.”