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Fall 2012

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Coping with Stress
Megan Gavin, PhD

Learning to Say "No"


You know this already: managing one’s stress is an essential ingredient to success in graduate school. And you know that managing stress typically revolves around self-care—eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, socializing, good time management, etc. Also, you probably know that stress isn’t always your enemy. In fact, it can sometimes be your friend, as moderate amounts of stress lead to increased energy, alertness, and productivity. So, instead of emphasizing the things you already know—the importance of balance and self-care, or focusing on the fact that a little bit of stress can be a good thing—I am going to share the most important stress management technique I learned while in graduate school: I learned to say "no."

Until that time, I had always been a people-pleaser. I worried too much about what others thought and erroneously believed that if I said no, people wouldn’t like me, wouldn’t ask for my help in the future, and would be mad at me. I attempted to take these beliefs and attitudes into graduate school with me—and quickly got in over my head. All of a sudden, that whole self-care and balance thing went out the window.

There were endless opportunities for people-pleasing in the graduate school environment: assisting professors with research projects, joining clubs and organizations, socializing with fellow graduate students, and volunteering in the community, to name a few. Because I was afraid to say no, my quality of life began to be impacted: I wasn’t sleeping as well, I was rushing from one class/meeting/event to the next, the work I was producing was not of the quality I knew I was capable of, and I was getting sick more often.

So, I decided something had to give: I needed to start saying no. I tested the waters by turning down a few social offerings at first. Lo and behold, no one was disappointed or mad. In fact, my friends continued to ask me to do things after I’d said no and even began sharing about their own busy lives and struggle to manage the multiple roles of a graduate student. From here, I grew more comfortable with saying no in all types of scenarios—volunteer settings, helping instructors with their research—and all of sudden my work quality improved, my health returned, I was sleeping again!

So, what’s the moral of this story? Yes, it’s important to take care of yourself while in graduate school by making time for things other than school—sleep, eat, exercise, spend time with friends. But it’s also important to begin saying no. Start now rather than wait until you are in over your head. Your friends, professors, partners, and colleagues will be understanding and appreciative…and that’s something a people-pleaser can get on board with.

Megan Gavin

Best of luck with the academic year!
Megan Gavin

Dr. Gavin is a licensed psychologist and the Clinical Coordinator with Counseling Services here at NAU. She would like to remind you that, if you would like support with learning to say no, Counseling Services offers consultations, individual counseling, and group counseling, including a Graduate Student Support group.