How to Fight PhD and Postdoc Stress Scientifically

Is it possible to fight stress, depression or insomnia through physical activity? Research has answers.

(Image: Tobias Mayr, Flickr)

Being a PhD or postdoc can be tough. Among many things, you have to juggle managing your time, writing, coworkers, keeping an overview over your projects, teaching activities, courses, literature club meetings, and conferences.

But hey, aren’t we forgetting something? Right, you should also spend enough time outside, eat healthily, meet with your friends and family, visit your grandparents, take care of your pets and spend quality time with your kids or partners.

It’s all very demanding and postdocs and PhD candidates often work such long hours that they end up chronically stressed. Sooner or later this can develop into serious health issues, such as burnout syndrome, depression, cardiovascular diseases or a weak immune system.

You are not alone!

Statistics from various articles show a worldwide tendency of academics experiencing increased levels of stress; according to a 2015 Graduate student happiness and well-being report (Uni Berkeley), over 45 percent of graduate students encounter stress, anxiety, and depression during their studies.

(Image: FlickR)

A 2003 article published in the International Journal of Stress Management found that the academic staff had 3–4 times higher rate of medical illness occurrence compared to the general population (data from 17 universities).

Scientists should, therefore, walk the extra mile and make sure to take proper care of themselves. After all, it is not only our health we are talking about, but also our cognitive abilities that could be affected by illness.

To avoid health and mental problems related to overworking ourselves, we thus need to deal directly with the source of it — stress.

Stress as a good servant but a bad master

Biologically speaking, stress serves as a trigger of various reactions, which prepare our body to flee. This instinct to flee is exactly why our blood pressure rises, our muscles tense, our senses sharpen, and the blood flow to the legs improves. Stress gets our body ready to either fight or flight.

Some people may even experience problems with digestion. Our sympathetic nervous system, is to blame for this. It regulates our internal organs and gets overstimulated during stressful episodes.

All these reactions are completely normal and natural. However, if we encounter stress over extended periods of time, other processes come into play. For instance, our cell biology and biochemistry changes, mainly due to the rise of cortisol (the stress hormone) levels.

Move it, baby!

Research has shown that physical exercise has significant advantages on the human body. Professor Markus Gerber from the Department of Sport, Exercise and Health at the University of Basel and his research group have conducted several studies in this field.

“Stress is definitely not good for us. Chronically stressed people have a shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of developing cardiovascular, immune, mental and metabolic diseases,” says Prof. Gerber.

Prof. Gerber leads research aimed at connecting stress and physical activity. Among many of his projects, he is working on the development of an online coaching system for physical activity to improve further the motivation to exercise. He has published several studies on how physical activity can be used to cope with stress and stress-related diseases.

Prof. Markus Gerber in his office (Image: Martina R. Hestericová)
“For example, we looked at what type of exercise fight stress the best. We compared the influence of cardio with dancing, ball sports, weightlifting and aerobics. Surprisingly, we found that only ball games and dancing had a strong stress buffering effect. A possible explanations could be the underlying effect of social interaction.”

Prof. Markus Gerber leads research aimed at connecting stress and physical activity. Among many of his projects, he is working on the development of an online coaching system for physical activity to improve further the motivation to exercise. Apart from that, he is trying to address the possibility to use physical activity as a co-treatment or replacement for mental disorder therapies.

However, these findings do not offer a universal recipe for success. You should simply find a sport that suits your personal needs, preferences and expectations.

No pain, no gain

Staying fit does not only mean eating healthy and having some physical activity, it is crucial to exercise regularly and as often as possible. The reason is simple: the positive outcomes of exercise do not last very long.

“Research shows, that there are not only chronic effects of physical activity, but also acute. In other words: if you go walking or running for 30 minutes, your body will profit from a stress buffering effect, which will last for about 4 hours,” explained Prof. Gerber. “I, therefore, suggest doing your physical activity during your lunch break, because it will protect you from stress for the entire afternoon.”

Another possibility would be to walk or cycle to work instead of taking public transport. If this is not possible for you, even smaller doses of physical activity will do.

“There is this golden rule of 30 minutes of physical activity per day. This, however, does not mean you have to play football or go running; any form of physical activity, that gets you at least a bit out of breath counts. These times of activation should last at least 10 minutes, and can be added up over the course of the day.”

Dear students and postdocs, the “take-home message” is quite clear: find an activity that makes you happy and do it on a regular basis. Your body and mind, and perhaps even your projects will benefit from it.

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The University of Basel has an international reputation of outstanding achievements in research and teaching. Founded in 1460, the University of Basel is the oldest university in Switzerland and has a history of success going back over 550 years. Learn more