Reducing Grad School Stress with Cognitive Psychology

Reducing Grad School Stress with Cognitive Psychology

Are you a working professional who’s returning to school part time? Most likely, you’ve made a shrewd choice. Having a master’s degree in your profession—or in one you aspire to—can jump-start your career, increase your earning power, and give you an edge in a competitive market.

So why are you so nervous?

Are You Reliving School Stress?

Actually, that nervousness is understandable, if not entirely rational. After all, practically everyone has experienced school stress at some point in their lives, whether in third grade or in college, and quite a few of us still have recurring dreams about failing a test—or maybe, forgetting about that test entirely. Scary stuff, indeed.

But for all these fears, real and imagined, Licensed Professional Counselor Patricia Anderson has some words of encouragement: relax, you’re better prepared for this than you might think. You just need to think more logically about these stressors and the best way to confront them.

“You know yourself best. You know your interests best,” Anderson said recently at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, whose master’s degree candidates include many older, “non-traditional” students who have been in the workforce for a while. “You know what your pitfalls are. You can figure out a way around them.”

Try Thinking Differently

Anderson, of Washington, D.C., specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of talk therapy that helps people recognize their inaccurate or negative thoughts and come up with healthier strategies for responding to stressful situations.

Suppose you had a tough time academically in college but have had several years of strong work experience since then. Of course, you might be nervous about going back to school. But Anderson said it would be a mistake to assume that your experiences in graduate school would mirror those of college: You’re older now, more mature, and have proved that you can succeed in a challenging work environment.

This particular kind of faulty thinking is called “overgeneralization”—assuming that a bad experience in the past will somehow dictate events in the future. It’s one of what David Burns, author of Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, calls "10 Cognitive Distortions." Some of the others are: “All-or-Nothing Thinking,” “Discounting the Positives,” “Should Statements,” and “Jumping to Conclusions.”

Becoming more aware of these distortions and how you use them can make you see things more accurately—and positively, Anderson said. “And moving into a more positive location is one of the best things you can do.”

Think back: Were you good student in high school and college, or a mediocre one? Did you have problems with procrastination or perfectionism? Were you afraid to talk in class? Nervous about what the professors thought of you? Afraid that others in your classes would be smarter than you?

“I guarantee you, everyone has some of these concerns,” Anderson said. 

When you start thinking like this today, pause and put those thoughts in perspective, Anderson said. “Ask yourself: ‘What, exactly, am I worried about? What’s my stressor?’ Then look at the way things have changed for me since then.”

Working and going to school? You’re not in it alone. Check out this article:
Working and Going to School at the Same Time

Looking for help balancing work and school? Check out this article:
Five Tips for Balancing Work and Grad School

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