On Zebras and PhD Stress

It’s hard not to be stressed while doing your PhD. Try to think of what causes your stress and how you could go about relieving it. If needed, be more like zebras on some occasions…

At one of our science outreach events in December I’ve heard about a book titled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. The event and all the activities were designed for an audience of fifteen year olds, but yours truly is young at heart and appreciates a cool title and a nice cover. The contents seemed to be meaningful, too. I wasn’t quite sure if I’ve made a good decision by adding it to my reading list, as the book had over four hundred pages (a luxury for me, nowadays), many of these filled with words like glucocorticoids, dexamethasone and angiogenesis. As you might have guessed by now, zebras make only a low-ley appearance in this book (if you’ve opened on the post because you really wanted to read about zebras and now feel betrayed, click here).

“Hi, I’m Ana and I’m a worrier”

I was determined to read it though, despite the lack of striped equids and excess of anatomical vocabulary, as if find myself feeling stressed out more often than not, and well-meaning people around me tell me I should calm down or relax (a phrase which my brain interprets as an attack and I get even more stressed) somewhat too frequently. I worry a lot about finances (misery known the best to those without full PhD funding), my analysis going too slow, my data vanishing (although my back-ups have back-ups for their back-ups), not being able to get relevant teaching experience, not going to an important conference or, even worse, going and delivering terrible talk. I’m a chronic worrier (which sounds very much like ‘warrior’ but, unfortunately, the only person I’m in war with is myself). The book hit home.

“PhD stress, you say?”  (Image credits: Brian Scott/CC BY 2.0)

Stressors, stressors everywhere

Ok, and what do zebras have to do with all of this, you might wonder? All of the factors I’ve mentioned fall within the category of psychological and social stressors. Zebras don’t worry too much about these. They don’t fret about their stripes looking tired or having sent a too cheeky email to supervisors, they don’t compare panel reports or publication lists with those of their colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, zebras don’t have it easy either; they can be affected by acute physical stressors (like being attacked by a lion) or chronic ones (starving due to lack of graze), both of which their bodies, just like ours, can handle pretty well. However, it’s the first type of stressors that can cause the most damage to our health, especially if we’re exposed to it over a longer period of time (like when studying for your PhD). Not sure our bodies are designed to handle that.


Sapolsky explains in a lot of detail, but humorously and with creative analogies, how stress influences our hormonal balance, metabolic and reproductive system, immunity and cognitive abilities. But what could this book offer you, if you don’t care these intricate ways in which our bodies work and aren’t amused by research anecdotes? (rats running away and the famous rivalry between Guillemin or Schally when they were trying to isolate the thyroid regulating hormone? No? Ok, but you’re missing out on lots of nerdy fun.) You might want to jump straight to the last chapter dealing with stress management. Although there important individual differences in stress-response, Sapolsky offers some tentative advice on how to keep the stress at bay. This what I took from it and how it related to my PhD.

  1. On this occasion only, double standards are ok. When you receive good news, try to see them as a rule, rather than an exception, and ascribe these to your own efforts and capabilities. When the news are bad, regard them as a single mishap. Your abstract got accepted for a cool conference? Awesome, you’re a good researcher and people find your project interesting. You received rejection? Oh, they probably had too many applications and you were in a rush when preparing it.
  1. Type A people, hostile and aggressively competitive, are under more risk. It is ok to try to be better or even the best in what you research, but it is important that you enjoy it, and not only compete for the sake of it. Be kind.
  2. Find an outlet for your frustrations. Use it both as stress prevention and relief. Find a hobby you enjoy outside of your PhD studies. You don’t have to be good at it, it ok if it’s just fun!
  3. Some things you can control, but many other are out of your hands. Learn to accept it. Cannot access a particular set of data? Too bad, but focus instead on working well with what you have or finding new sources.
  4. Be informed, of course, but there is such thing as too much information (ok, this works in many ways). If you’re worried about your viva, learning all about the procedural consequences of failing or googling “I failed my viva” is not the way to go. Read the success stories instead. 
  5. Seek for sources of social affiliation and support. Make sure you have support from fellow PhDs (if not at your university, then elsewhere) who know exactly what you’re going through, but also from people outside of your PhD bubble to help you put the problems in perspective. Offer this support generously, too.


Finally, if all fails, ask yourself: Would a zebra worry about this?*

No? Then fix it if you can and, if not, let it go.

How do you fight stress? What stresses you out the most about your PhD? Let us know in the comments section. 🙂

*If the answer is yes – please drop your thesis and run for shelter and/or get nutrition!

Ana Kedveš (@anakedves)

3 thoughts on “On Zebras and PhD Stress

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: