Expert Advice on Managing Stress after College

Stress Alan Cleaver via Compfight

As a college student, you might think you’ve got a good handle on stress. You balance school, part-time jobs, internships and extracurricular activities. Life after college should be a breeze, right? Not exactly. Academic stress is different than work-related stress, and many different stress factors appear after college. We talked to Elizabeth Scott from the About.com Guide to Stress Management about coping with the stress of transitioning to the working world.

Even those who are highly motivated and perform well academically find it difficult to adjust to the workplace. How is work-related stress different than academic stress?

There are a few key differences.  In college, you have a large group of people–many of them friends–who are all in the same situation. You can gain ideas and support from them, and have an idea of whether or not you are on target.  In a workplace situation, your responsibilities are more often unique to you, and there is often a sense of competition rather than camaraderie.  Also, in college, all students are generally operating within a few years’ experience of one another; in the workplace, new workers find themselves at the bottom of a food chain that includes those who have been in the field for decades.  This downshift in support and relative experience can make a difference in how competent people feel, and can bring unexpected stress.

Also, the stakes are higher. When in school, each class is compartmentalized–if you make a mistake on a test, there is another test coming, and a clean slate with it.  Grades are cumulative, but you start fresh with each class; if you do poorly in one class, professors in your other classes don’t even know about it.  In the workplace, you build a reputation that follows you, and affects your livelihood for years.  If you are fired, it is much more difficult to find another job.  This increased pressure can bring added stress.

Finally, in college, it is understood that you are in a time in your life that is reserved for learning and growing, for exploration and mistakes.  In the workforce, the time for trial-and-error is over; you are expected to be a professional, and to do your job well with no mistakes.  This is a subtle but significant difference that can be felt in higher stress levels.

Many new graduates also find themselves working in their field for the first time, and often with large amounts of debt to start repaying.  In some ways, these jobs often feel different from what was imagined: perhaps less excitement, heavier challenges, or any of a number of real-world surprises that can set in.  New workers may feel anxious when they encounter such challenges in their jobs, and wonder if they chose the right path.  The added financial pressure of living independently and repaying student loans can compound this anxiety significantly.

What are some common causes of stress for recent college graduates and what might they do to mitigate this stress?

Finances

Most college students have financial support from parents or student loans.  Upon graduation, this support diminishes or disappears entirely, and is often replaced with student loan debt that must be repaid.  This can be a huge shock for recent graduates.  Additionally, many are shouldering the entire financial burden of independent living for the first time–this is a significant change that can add quite a bit of stress.  Now is the time for a plan!  There are many good books and other sources of sound financial advice that can enable people to set up a budget that can delineate both monthly expenses and long-term repayment of loans.  Knowing how much money can go to groceries, rent, and other areas of life is an important first step, and seeing a budget laid out can diminish the anxiety that comes from not knowing if there’s enough to make ends meet.

Another way to diminish financial stress is to find inexpensive or free ways to have fun and relieve stress.  College students usually know how to do things on the cheap, but now that the social structure of college is in the past, recent grads may need to find new habits to replace the old.  If they are used to going to the campus gym, a neighborhood jog with a friend may be a necessary replacement activity.   Drinks in a bar may be too expensive for a while, but having friends over to hang out is a low-cost alternative.  Adding new hobbies and interests can help keep people from feeling deprived, and these new hobbies can be as inexpensive as learning something new through YouTube videos during down-time.

If financial anxiety becomes too heavy, or if adding credit card debt becomes tempting, recent graduates may find it less stressful to have more work, at least in the short term while they are building a financial safety net and nest egg.  Having an extra part-time job in one’s field can help build skills and work experience, and even a job unrelated to that field can be helpful in that it is a short-term solution that brings long-term benefits of greater financial security.  Finding ways to save money and adding a part-time job can help to balance the budget, and knowing what the budget is is crucial to that.

Knowing The Next Steps

Many graduates become stressed just thinking about the future and what to do next.  Their entire high school and college careers have built to prepare them for this time in their lives, and this can feel like a lot to live up to.  If these first jobs aren’t living up to expectations, this can bring a lot of anxiety.  Recent grads need to remind themselves that this is just the next step in the journey, and that nothing is set in stone.  If their first job is not high-paying, is not as enjoyable or fulfilling as hoped, or is not even in their field–these things can all change.  The important thing is that they are working toward a goal, learning along the way, and gaining skills and experiences just by doing what they’re doing.  It may take a little longer than expected, or things be taking a few detours along the way, but this is a natural part of the journey.  Things can–and will–get better.

Work-Life Balance

College life can be busy, for sure.  Many students look forward to graduation as a time when the hard work of school is done and “real life” can finally begin, bringing new freedoms and choices with it.  However, the transition from college to full-time work can sometimes feel like moving out of the frying pan and into the fire.  The many responsibilities of full-time work and post-college life can be taxing, and finding a work-life balance can be challenging at this stage.  Recent graduates need to remember to fit in time for relaxation, self-care, and their social lives, while still maintaining motivation to work as hard as they can to prove themselves in their new positions.  Fortunately, finding work-life balance can actually help workers remain motivated and stave off burnout.  The important thing is to keep this in mind, maintain at least one relaxing habit, and say no to energy drains as much as possible.

Any other stress reduction tips for graduates entering the workforce?

Maintaining habits that reduce stress can add energy and create an ‘upward spiral’ of positive feelings and attitudes, and increase motivation as well.  Healthy habits developed now can lead to increased longevity and wellness as well as reduced stress in the long term, so healthy habits created now bring a big payoff.  Getting regular exercise, meditating regularly, investing a little time in a relaxing hobby, or getting together with friends often can all be effective habits to add to the schedule in order to help manage the effects of stress.

For more information on stress management, visit the About.com Guide to Stress Management.

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