By now, I guess many of you are already panicking about the workload of this year. For me, it is usually around this time of the year when the sheer reality of the task sinks in and so I feel myself doing reckless things, like waking up in the middle of the night and considering going to my desk to put a few hours in the books when I should be sleeping. The problem with stress, apart from the unpleasantness of feeling at the edge of the abyss, is that it clouds our judgement and it is easy to slip and make wrong choices (like extending our reading list unnecessarily, sleeping less or second-guessing our elections)
If this is your case, in this post I aim to give a few pointers on how to avoid feeling stressed or how to cope with the feeling if you ever get to feel this way.
PLAN, PLAN, AND PLAN
The first reason why we may feel stressed is because the task seems too big or too indeterminate. If you only have a reading list with titles as your plan, you may get anxious that you do not have much time, or that you will not be able to cover the required amount of material. Maybe you are not even sure what is the right amount of material. You need a detailed plan. You may have goals for a month, and then break those goals to sub-tasks assigned to each week, and if you feel like it, break those sub-tasks even more until they are manageable chunks of time in a day. You end up with a good overview of what you need and how much time it will take.
It is important to be realistic, no need to be a hero(ine) and try to do a lot each day, because there will be days when you will not feel well or something will come up. On those days you will feel bad for not being able to study as much as you planned, hence resulting in more stress and defeating the whole purpose of making a plan in the first place. Doing a consistent amount of studying over a long time span is better than exerting yourself in the first weeks and then feeling depleted of energy. I also recommend leaving out weekends (at least until revision time arrives)-you need rest time as much as study time.
SHARE YOUR FEELINGS
If you feel like you are struggling, do talk to someone about it. You are not less of a person for doing so, and sometimes having a sympathetic listener that cheers us up is what we need to get motivated and overcome feelings of stress. They may even have sound advice to help you get back on track, especially if they are fellow students facing the same modules as you. Pop by the VLE and post a message in the student forums, and most likely someone will come to cheer you up and maybe share a bit of wisdom. If not, you can do what I do and just hug your dog.
LINK YOUR STUDIES TO EVERYDAY THINGS
One possible reason why you may feel stressed is because distance learning is a sustained effort over a long time and you can only rely on yourself. Hence it is easy to lose focus and to think that you are not learning anything and panic because you do not feel prepared for an examination. One thing that kept me “grounded” was trying to search little details in everyday things that I could identify thanks to my studies, and then noting them down. For example, when I was preparing Waiting for Godot for Explorations in Literature, I learned about the term “deflation” applied to comedy: when a solemn or serious moment is undermined by nonsensical words or acts. Watching The Big Bang Theory, I realized that the character of Sheldon Cooper is essentially about deflation. This helped me realize that I was getting a whole new way to approach reality through new vocabulary, something that transcended examinations, and it helped me to stay calm. Whenever I had doubts about myself or felt stressed, I recalled those moments by reading these little notes.
FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
Other downside of sustained efforts are that they become harder when we focus on results, because the nature of the task is such that results take time to show, and then it is easy to feel stressed because we feel like we are paddling in circles, not getting anywhere. One idea is to keep one eye on deadlines, but always think about the process: the new things you are learning, interesting material you have come across that you would have missed otherwise… Instead of thinking of getting to the end line, try to enjoy the landscape around while you run. The end line is there, and ultimately you have to cross it, just keep in mind that focusing on results may be preventing you from enjoying the whole experience.
As a final note, one thing that is not discussed much is that our studies can help us in getting to know ourselves better. Indeed, searching your own coping mechanisms is a way to know yourself better. When feeling stressed, just stop and think a bit about how you are feeling and why. Self-knowledge is an important tool for optimizing your study process.
Ana is studying the BA English by distance learning in Luxembourg.