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graphic that reads "I am daring greatly"Ashley Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @throughthe_veil or on her blog, Colonialism Through the Veil.

What do you do when experiences during (and possibly related to) grad school paralyze you with fear or other strong emotions? How do you press on, perform, and progress in your degree when sitting down at the keyboard strikes terror in your heart? Drawing on the research of Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston, tips from the Trauma Resource Institute, and my own experience, this post will provide practical advice on how to move through fear and develop resilience that will carry you through your program and life.

For everyone: Whether or not you’ve experienced trauma in your past, I would highly recommend reading Brené Brown’s books, I Thought it Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough’  and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You AreThese are meant to be read slowly and digested over time, so this should not add to your workload but instead give you tools to manage the day-to-day stresses of being a grad student, a perfectionist, a workaholic, as well as some of the larger issues we face as people, like body image. If you’re feeling adventurous, Brené is offering a two-part course on The Gifts of Imperfection, starting January 30 and March 30. It averages out to about $10-11/week, and I found the journey to be worth it. And if you’re really limited on time and money, here are some of Brené’s TED talks and interviews.

To develop resilience, we need to:

(1) Recognize and understand your physiological response to shame, fear, and trauma through journaling.  The writing prompts in this worksheet are very helpful when learning to recognize your physiological response to stressors (opens as a PDF).

(2) Determine what triggers these responses. Based on Brown’s research, the following are the most common shame triggers for the general population:

  • Appearance and body image
  • Parenting
  • Family
  • Money and Work
  • Mental and physical health
  • Sex
  • Aging
  • Religion
  • Being stereotyped and labeled
  • Speaking out
  • Surviving trauma

As grad students, I think we can add a number of more specific categories. This list is not all-encompassing but will at least get you started thinking about what may trigger shame for you as a grad student.

  • Writing
  • Teaching
  • Contributions to class discussions
  • Presentations
  • Lab work
  • Internships

Once you learn what your triggers are, you can develop a plan to deal with the feelings that come up.

(3) Learn grounding techniques to get through panic attacks and traumatic situations

Some apps that help you find peace in the midst of the storm:

  • BSDR Player (Bilateral Sounds Desensitization and Reprocessing)- This app is $9.99 and available for both iPhones and Android. Try it for 10 minutes at the start of something stressful and whenever you begin to feel anxious, knowing that research has found this to work even with returning military vets experience post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) from war. This app may be most effective in combination with working with a therapist who uses Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to work through the trauma or fears that cause the anxiety. For more information on EMDR therapy, check out:
  • iChillThis free app is available for both iPhones and Android and provides guided steps to bring you back into the present and out of a panicked state. For example, the app provides a “Help Now!” button that walks you through grounding strategies that activate different areas of your brain, including counting back from 10 as you walk around the room or space you’re in, naming six colors you see in the room or outside, etc. It also provides information on skills you can develop to increase your resiliency during moments of anxiety, stress, and panic.
  • Relax M.P. (Premium): This app is also available for both iPhones and the link in the title takes you the Google Play Store for Android devices. I’ve found the Concentration Beta waves really helpful in promoting focus for set periods of time, so the premium app is well worth $2.99. I used to listen to music but found it distracting when I was working on really difficult or anxiety-producing writing/academic work. Whether it’s the science behind it or the placebo effect of believing it helps, it works for me. Here’s more information about the effect of beta waves on concentration:
  • An Empirical Investigation Into the Effect of Beta Frequency Binaural-beat Audio Signals on Four Measures of Human Memory
  • Spectral Analysis of the EEG in Meditation” (See if your library has access to Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology)
  • “Binaural Beat Technology in Humans: A Pilot Study To Assess Psychologic and Physiologic Effects”The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (opens a PDF)

Practice gratitude. (And yes, it takes practice and intentionality and courage.) Jot down or take photos of what you’re grateful for - be sure to catch the little things (a cup of coffee in the morning, time with a friend over lunch, going for a walk, watching the sun rise or set, the beauty of snowflakes on a crisp winter morning, etc.) This practice was one of the only things that got me out of bed when I was going through a really difficult time. Each morning, my goal was to name at least three things I was grateful for. Sometimes it was a stretch to find three, but I did, and it made it possible for me to face another day.

Breathe. Practice mindfulness meditation. Try an app like Rest and Relax ($0.99 on both iPhones and Android) if you’re just getting started as well as guided meditations through Meditation Oasis and check out Eva Lantsoght’s GradHacker article.

Move. Get out and move your body. If you’re like me, you may feel better with some intense activity: running, weight lifting, biking, hiking, martial arts, especially if you pair it with something like yoga that also allows you to stretch, breathe, be mindful, and check in with yourself. Bonus points if you do something active with at least one other person. Grad school is lonely enough as it is, and going through a traumatic situation can make it even more isolating.

(4) Learn. One of the most important things you can do is educate yourself about whatever type of trauma you’ve experienced, how it affects your mind, emotions, even your physical health. Take a look at some of the literature on PTSD. And learn about coping mechanisms. This is best done with a trained therapists, but here are some resources to get you started:

(5) Develop a trusted group of friends and colleagues who can support you through these challenges and provide a listening, non-judgmental ear when you’re struggling.

(6) Seek professional help: Check out campus resources and support groups or ask your campus counseling center for outside resources if you find going off-campus more comfortable.

(7) Utilize your creativity. Even if you don’t think you’re a creative person, you are, just maybe not in the way you might think about creativity. As Brown has written, unused creativity is not benign. By exercising it in a way we find meaningful, we can find healing (aka stress relief). Beware comparison though! It is the primary creativity killer. When you are simply trying to express yourself, you need to find a way to honor what you produce without stacking it up against others’ work. Be adventurous - buy some gouache paints (vivid watercolors), basic brushes, paper, and go crazy. Use colors to express how you feel or to paint an image that you find captivating. Or scrapbook, write, design a game, work on a programming project, sketch, play or write music… whatever allows you to express yourself freely.

Finally, know that you are not alone. Many of us experience traumatic events during graduate school, but you can move through it to find peace, strength, and resilience.

What suggestions do you have for facing the pressures of grad school while dealing with traumatic events or circumstances?

[Image from Brené used with permission.]


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