Your Stress Triggers

Learning Objective

  • Learn how stress results from the way you interact with your environment.
  • Learn to recognize your stress triggers.

If you have felt stressed out in graduate school, you are not alone! In a UC Berkeley study,1 nearly half of participating graduate students reported that they had stress-related or emotional problems that significantly affected their well-being or academic performance.


“I have worked full time throughout my graduate program. I drive an hour each way, often staying nights. At some point I am bound to burn out.”

“My advisor is one of the only two female faculty in our department. On my first day of graduate school she told me, ‘Women have to work twice as hard as men to get anywhere in this field, so you better get used to it now’ and has piled on the workload ever since.”

What is Stress?

You experience stress when your personal resources are not adequate to meet the demands you face. When what you expect of yourself or others expect of you exceeds the resilience skills you can apply, you will more than likely feel anxious and discouraged.

Stress represents a difference between the assets you bring to a situation and those that are required. In that sense, stress requires you to change and adapt. Some amount of stress or challenge can motivate you to complete tasks, do your best, stretch, and meet your goals. But when stress levels get too high, your relationships, focus, productivity, self-care, and health can all be affected negatively.2 Stress is pervasive.3 Major life stressors like divorce, illness, significant caretaking responsibilities, and dual-career conflicts with a spouse or partner can disrupt your life and be harmful to your physical and mental health.4 However, the day-to-day accumulation of small and recurrent stressors can have a similarly big effect on your stress level.5 These daily hassles and repeated stressors, left unchecked, can add up over time to discourage you, diminish your productivity, and interfere with your well-being.


Which of the following can be a source of stress?

The best answer “D.” Stress is a reaction that occurs when your personal resources are overmatched by significantly tested your environmental demands. Answer “a” is the most obvious choice—you have likely felt the stress from exams, papers, and/or projects many times throughout your academic career. Although they may not seem to be stressful at when taken at face value, answers “b” and “c” can actually also cause stress by testing your resources and personal reserves. Planning and prepping for a vacation, particularly during a heavy semester of work, can be stressful. Similarly, a visit from a friend may tax some of your personal, financial, and even emotional resources—which can cause stress and even affect your productivity. It becomes important for you to be able to recognize sources of stress in your own life, and the specific things that trigger your stress reactions.

Stress in Graduate School

Graduate students cope with an extended and sometimes indeterminate period of research and apprenticeship along with unpredictable financial support. For STEM women, graduate school can be a particularly trying time since the environment can be chilly and rife with daily hassles. Here are a few examples of what women report about graduate science and engineering programs that they find stressful:

  • Competitive, hierarchical academic culture
  • Problems with mentors and/or advisors
  • Isolation and marginalization
  • Imbalance between graduate work and personal life
  • Sexism and gender stereotypes
  • Conflicting work styles and goals with co-workers
  • Publication and research productivity pressures
  • Financial pressures

You and Your Environment

It is important to recognize that stress is not simply a function of the environment or immediate situation. Rather, you interact with what is happening in a way that may result in your experiencing stress.7 Your personal characteristics influence whether you judge something as stressful and how you respond. For example, you are more likely to experience stress if you:

  • Set unreasonably high expectations and are harshly critical of yourself when things do not go as planned8, 9
  • Doubt your abilities to cope with the situation at hand (coping efficacy)
  • Encounter something or someone that triggers your particular vulnerabilities, core values, or “soft spots”

Below is a chart that represents stress as an interaction between your personal characteristics and the environment:

Demand + Your unique characteristics + Perception of resources = Stress level
Need a job + will not settle for anything less than your top choice job + don't believe that you have adequate career connections = high
Need a job + will consider any number of good job options + believe you know the right people to get the job you want = low
Need a job + will settle for any job + believe that your career network is small = moderate


Maricella has been feeling overwhelmed lately by her academic demands. She has multiple exams and papers due in the upcoming weeks, and she is under some tight deadlines in her lab. During a conversation with her partner, Maricella became very upset when her partner was answering emails on his phone while she was talking to him, which lead to an argument between them. Maricella knows that stress likely contributed to the conflict.

Among the following options, what would be the best for helping her to deal with her stress effectively?

The best answer is answer “c.” While answer “a” may facilitate conversation about how her partner’s behavior made her frustrated, it may not get to the core of what is actually triggering her feeling upset—her stress reaction. Answer “b,” while enabling a release of emotion to occur, may actually cause Maricella to say or do something she might later regret. Answer “d” is an avoidant approach which may actually cause her stress to build up, only to surface later. Answer “c” will help Maricella reflect on her situation, and see what actually is triggering her. For example, it may be that she has concerns that others aren’t listening to her or taking her seriously in her lab or classroom. Identifying that as a trigger may help her to be able to be proactive and take steps to prevent such situations in the future, or better yet, to find a way to effectively address her concern.

Stress Triggers

Have you ever wondered why even the smallest thing can set you off? There are two primary reasons why this happens. First, the small thing may simply be the last in a chain of unpleasant events or microstressors that combine to form the “big bang.” Think of the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

But there is another reason that something seemingly insignificant can evoke your strong response. It has to do with signaling danger or hopelessness. Here are some examples:

  • A colleague scowls at you across the table. Perhaps this triggers your concerns about ever fitting in with the others in the field.
  • Your computer crashes. Perhaps this reminds you that your department just isn't maintaining the equipment that is necessary for you to do your work.
  • You run out of gas on the way home. Perhaps this convinces you that it's too hard to meet your lab responsibilities and also be home for your daughter's play.

It’s important to be aware of your stress triggers so that you can assess whether your perceptions and reactions are commensurate with the situation. Similarly, for the key relationships in your academic and personal life, it’s helpful to keep their stress triggers in mind as you interact with them.

Consequences of Stress

Prolonged stress can lead to physical ailments such as ulcers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and insomnia.2 In a report by the American Psychological Association, half of the participants reported that stress had an impact on their emotional well-being and physical health and contributed to their levels of irritability and anger3. In this study, stress was found to negatively impact personal relationships, cause people to be more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior, and contribute to lower productivity. Thus, stress is not just unpleasant; it can impact your health and life in major ways.

CareerWISE Point On Stress Triggers

Stress is very common in graduate school, and experiencing stress does not suggest that you are weak or that you don’t belong in your program. It is important to remember that your response to stress does not depend on the source of the stress, but is instead a function of how you perceive and respond to difficulties and pressures.

CareerWISE Tips on Managing Stress Triggers

When you experience stress, you have two options:

1. You can change your environment to remove the stressor.

  • Trade “perfect” for “good enough”
  • Rather than cooking elaborate meals, consider quick and healthy alternatives
  • Do not expect the house to be pristine while you are in graduate school. If your partner complains, ask him or her to help out.
  • Consider whether insisting on all A’s in your classes will really impact your future career
  • Perhaps rearrange your spending habits so that you spend more on time-saving conveniences, such as a nearby parking spot or an apartment close to campus
  • Take fewer classes during the year and enroll in the summer term
  • Set up automatic bill payment
  • Next semester, be realistic about what you can actually take on. Make sure you are scheduling in time for yourself.
  • Learn to say no

2. You can also change the way you think about and emotionally react to what you find stressful. You will find more useful information on this in the How You Think and How You Feel modules.


^ 1 Quinn, B. (2006). Graduate student mental health: Needs assessment and utilization of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 47(3), 247-266.

^ 2 Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

^ 3 American Psychological Association. (2007). Stress in America. Retrieved from

^ 4 Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 11, 213-218.

^ 5 DeLongis, A., Coyne, J. C., Dakof, G., Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1982). Relationship of daily hassles, uplifts, and major life events to health status. Health Psychology, 1, 119-136.

^ 6 Serido, J., Almeida, D., Worthington, E. (2004). Chronic stressors & daily hassles: Unique and interactive relationships with psychological distress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 45, 17–33. doi:10.1177/002214650404500102

^ 7 Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

^ 8 Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. xiv, 435). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

^ 9 Dunn J. C., Whelton, W. J., & Sharpe, D. (2006). Maladaptive perfectionism, hassles, coping, and psychological distress in university professors. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 511–523. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.53.4.511

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