How to Beat the Stress: Psychology Graduate Students’ Adaptive and Maladaptive Coping Strategies
No matter the perceived preparedness, there is no way to predict the transitional stress that ensues when beginning a postbaccalaureate education. As third-year graduate students in a doctoral level program, it was not long ago that we first encountered the multiple stressors of managing school responsibilities and financial obligations while ensuring time for social support and maintaining family ties. Effective time management became an art form, requiring a balance of both interpersonal and intrapersonal coping strategies. Our personal experiences of learning this ever-shifting balance left us contemplating: How do other students cope with the daily stress of a demanding graduate training program?
A vast amount of research concentrates on the strains that students face in graduate school, including finances/debt, anxiety, academics, and poor work/school life balance (e.g., El-Ghoroury, Galper, Sawaqdeh, & Bufka, 2012; Fuenfhausen & Cashwell, 2013; Schlemper, 2011). Upon entering graduate school, students immediately gain an understanding of the stressors, but many continue to grapple with stress management skills. The literature remains scarce in examining the coping strategies utilized by psychology graduate students, despite the understanding of the impact of stress on students’ work efficacy and quality of life. Gaining knowledge on how to effectively cope with these stressors is an important aspect for developing students’ professional identities and can decrease the chance of developing burnout or professional impairment (Barnett, Baker, Elman, & Schoener, 2007; El-Ghoroury et al., 2012). High levels of stress in psychology graduate students has been empirically linked to increases in alcohol/substance abuse, less satisfaction and engagement with their careers, and overall life dissatisfaction (Smith & Moss, 2009). Additionally, using adaptive coping strategies to prevent burnout can reduce students’ psychological distress, possible suicidal ideation/behaviors, depression, and anxiety (Smith & Moss, 2009).
Coping styles are classified into either interpersonal or intrapersonal domains. Within each domain, the strategies used are either adaptive (i.e., helpful or healthy approaches to stress management) or maladaptive (i.e., unhelpful or unhealthy). The overarching goal of remediating stress in graduate school is to employ adaptive coping strategies essential for healthy functioning to reduce adverse outcomes as suggested by Barnett et al. (2007) and El-Ghoroury et al. (2012).
From the few studies that have addressed specific adaptive coping skills among graduate psychology students, the most commonly discussed interpersonal strategies include interacting with fellow peers, receiving personal counseling/therapy, and obtaining support from significant others, while healthy intrapersonal coping has traditionally been understood to include elements such as self-care, exercise, effective organizational skills, introspection, and meditation (El-Ghoroury, et al., 2012). Collectively, both interpersonal and intrapersonal strategies should be employed to reduce the negative effects of stress in training.
Anecdotally, we noticed similar trends in our own experiences. In our psychology training program, first year doctoral students must complete a professional development seminar, a bi-weekly one hour course focused on transitioning students into the fast-paced, time consuming, and demanding environment of graduate school. This seminar discusses topics such as professional identity, burnout, self-care, study skills, debt/financial strains, and adaptive coping strategies. Despite this training, we observed ourselves and other students participating more often in unhealthy and maladaptive coping behaviors, which include excessive alcohol intake, unhealthy eating patterns, and poor sleep habits. Were our stress management strategies any different from students in other psychology training programs?
The purpose of the current study research was to expand the literature on the intrapersonal and interpersonal coping styles utilized by psychology graduate students, whether positive or negative, in an attempt to cope with the stressors related to their training. Our aim is to understand the methods students use to cope with stress. Different from El-Ghoroury et al. (2012), we provided participants with an opportunity to qualitatively list and explain their coping behaviors, in the hopes that we would receive a more comprehensive picture of students’ coping strategies.
Participants. Masters and doctoral students (N = 84) in American Psychological Association (APA) accredited psychology programs were recruited for this study through email requests to training directors and division Listservs. A nationally representative sample of students, ranging from first year masters/doctoral students to final year interns, responded to the survey. Demographic information suggests the majority of participants identified as Caucasian (79.57%), female (74.19%), and heterosexual (70.97%), with ages ranging from 21 to 66.
Measures. As part of a larger mixed methods study, participants were asked to qualitatively assess their coping strategies and life satisfaction while in graduate training. Examples of questions included: “What coping strategies have you found to be effective in reducing stress?” and “What coping strategies have you found to be effective in raising your level of general life satisfaction?”
A grounded theory of qualitative analysis was conducted, in which themes were derived from reviewing the total number of participants’ responses (e.g., Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). A number of interpersonal and intrapersonal coping strategies emerged from the qualitative analysis. First, intrapersonal coping strategies were named; these included engaging in self-care, exercise, useful organizational strategies, and utilizing introspection/mindfulness techniques. Students noted self-reflection and meditation as invaluable skills to manage the effect of stress, physically and mentally. In addition to endorsing beneficial coping strategies for stress reduction, students also admitted to using maladaptive intrapersonal coping approaches. These strategies included drinking alcohol, engaging in sedentary behaviors, and avoiding academic activities.
Second, a number of interpersonal themes were discovered. Students reported associating with peers, seeking support from advisors, attending personal therapy, and relaxing with significant others as effective sources of external support to manage their stress. Despite the positive responses touting social support easing graduate students’ stress levels, many students disclosed that graduate school restricts time with romantic partners, strains familial relationships, and causes financial tension. In addition, a majority of students identified poor faculty relationships and cohort tension as barriers to utilizing such forms of interpersonal coping; these factors were also sources of stress.
Data from the current study suggest a number of intrapersonal and interpersonal adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies used to manage the significant stress of graduate training in psychology. Adaptive intrapersonal coping themes primarily included exercise and use of mindfulness meditations. Adaptive interpersonal coping strategies included connecting with peers, engaging supportive faculty, attending therapy, and spending time with significant others. Participants reflected on their awareness of maladaptive coping strategies as well, including increased alcohol use and intrapersonal avoidant behaviors related to school work that could interfere with academic success. While social support was largely seen as positive, students cited how the busyness of graduate school impeded time and relationship satisfaction with family and friends. Lacking support from faculty was also a source of stress and a barrier to interpersonal coping within training programs.
The current study results were similar to previous research on coping strategies among graduate students in psychology. As mentioned previously, the El-Ghoroury et al. (2012) survey did not utilize qualitative methods; however, there were several similarities and differences across both studies. Similar to El-Ghoroury et al. (2012), seeking support from friends and mentors, receiving personal psychotherapy, and regular exercise were cited as adaptive coping strategies reported by participants. Unlike El-Ghoroury et al. (2012), alcohol use and the avoidance of academic activities was frequently endorsed by the current study’s participants. Conversely, themes of utilizing spiritual resources, talking to a physician, and spending more time on school were not endorsed by the current study participants.
Educating students and training programs on the importance of developing and maintaining adaptive coping strategies seems to increase students’ life satisfaction during graduate training in psychology. To provide practical support, we would like to offer a few primary methods for students and training programs to begin promoting strategies backed by current research. First, although there are many resources to access mindfulness meditations, two useful websites that may provide direction to students are:
- http://health.ucsd.edu/specialties/mindfulness/programs/mbsr/Pages/audio.aspx (University of California San Diego Health, 2015); and
- https://contextualscience.org/free_audio (Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, n.d.).
Second, it may be helpful for students to have honest conversations about work/life balance with partners and friends to communicate the importance of their relationships as well as how their school stress affects them personally and interpersonally. Finally, it is important for training programs to be aware of the negative effects of poor student-faculty interactions and perceived cohort tension. Graduate training programs or student groups within the program may focus on supporting effective development and utilization of peer-peer and faculty-student professional relationships. Utilization of these resources by students and training programs could decrease student stress, have a positive influence on graduate students’ training experiences, and reduce the likelihood of burnout or poor career satisfaction (Barnett et al., 2007; El-Ghoroury, et al., 2012).
Graduate training in psychology is comprised of many rewarding experiences but can be fraught with stress related to difficulties experiencing satisfaction with life and career development. It is hoped the information provided will initiate conversations within the profession of how students and training programs can work together to provide the highest quality of training, within a supportive framework that promotes adaptive coping, satisfaction with life and career development, and a unifying program climate.