First Aid for Online Learning Stress

Stress managementFeeling the pressure of looming deadlines? Wondering if you’ll be able to get everything done and wishing you had said “no” to a project or two? If your answer to these questions is a resounding “yes,” know that you are not alone.

If you are like most online students, you’re not only worried about completing your class assignments, but also balancing work and family responsibilities. A 2012 study from The Learning House [PDF] found that only “40% of online students do not work full-time.” The convenience and flexibility offered by online education make it possible for us to pursue college goals in addition to other commitments, resulting in a packed schedule. Stress comes with the territory.

At this point in the year, we’ve moved beyond the mid-term in courses that follow a traditional semester schedule, and are headed at a fast pace toward final projects and exams. While classes offered in accelerated terms will continue to roll on through the holidays with little or no break. What can you do now to make the coming months as manageable as possible? Create your own first-aid response with the following activities.

Avoid Burnout

Defining stress can be complicated, but it’s an experience we all recognize. Arizona State University lists some of the top stressors for college students as: school, time, money, relationships, and balancing changing roles. As an online student, these sources of potential conflict may be familiar to you, too.

While some level of stress is expected, “excessive and prolonged stress” can lead to what HelpGuide.org describes as burnout. This “state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion … reduces your productivity, and saps your energy,” and may leave you without the motivation you need to accomplish important tasks in your life.

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to manage stress and prevent reaching burnout. Consider adopting these basic techniques and their goal of reducing the potentially harmful impact of the stress experience:

  • Take care of yourself. HelpGuide.org’s advice to prevent burnout includes “adopting healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits.” Developing these habits takes time, but they are the most fundamental building blocks, providing the energy you need to “deal with life’s hassles and demands.”
  • Unplug. Have you ever worked or submitted course assignments while on vacation? Smartphones and laptops allow us to stay connected around the clock, but many experts argue that this can be more harmful than helpful. WebMD.com’s article “When Technology Addiction Takes Over Your Life” suggests “experimenting with short periods of inaccessibility” to make time focused on your studies more productive.
  • Create negative mental space in your day. This is something I have been trying to do more of lately. It’s hard to add another thing to your daily schedule, but there is a benefit to taking a break from work when you need one to clear your mind, change the scenery, etc. The Mayo Clinic’s list of stress and time management techniques includes scheduling short and long (see “unplug” above) breaks to “rest and re-energize.”
  • Commit to making a change. What do you need to do differently in your regular routine to reduce stress and its effects? The American Heart Association recommends practicing positive self-talk and relaxation techniques, among other activities that can help you control how you react to stress.
  • Keep your goals in mind. Especially where online learning is concerned. Saint Leo University’s online students and alumni advise you to “keep your eye on the finish line” and remember that “school is a temporary hurdle.” Making sacrifices now may be necessary as you review and revise your day-to-day priorities, but the benefits of graduating are on the horizon.

Stay Calm and … Gather Your Resources

A prevention is better than a cure, but sometimes, no matter how well we’ve prepared, we end up in “react mode” when the unexpected happens in our lives. Once you realize a serious problem exists, don’t panic. It’s likely the situation isn’t as bad as you think it is, but it can be hard to tell when your mind is racing and you feel overwhelmed.

Sometimes you need more assistance than you can provide on your own. Use the following resources to take stock of all the options available and minimize the potential damage:

  • Your Instructors: While your online instructors don’t want or need to hear about every schedule conflict you are facing throughout the term, if you are truly experiencing a serious problem, reach out to let them know. Depending on the severity of the situation, you may have more options than you realize from getting a due date pushed back to withdrawing from the course or taking an “incomplete.” Every school has it’s own policies, but you won’t know what you can do until you ask.
  • Learning Support Specialists: If you need help conquering test anxiety, are struggling to meet the writing expectations of your courses, or need additional tech support, research what assistance is available through your online college. Capella University’s list of Online Learning Support Services, and Kaplan University’s Writing, Math, and Science Centers illustrate some of the possibilities. Your school and program want to see you succeed.
  • Your Supervisor: If your continuing education isn’t a priority for your employer, or if it’s a work-related issue that’s preventing your course progress, you’ll need to prioritize on your own (see “Your Instructor” above). But if your supervisor is aware and supportive of your studies, you may be able to talk with them to manage time and resources, so that you can meet the expectations of both school and employer.
  • Friends and Family: Those who know you best may be able to best assist. Bryant and Stratton College addresses the challenges related to maintaining life balance while studying online, suggesting “online students need a support team. This team wants to help you succeed and see you graduate.” In addition to instructors and school support services, who is on your support team? Sometimes having help with even a small task can make a world of difference in your week.

Strengthen Important Skills

Stress management and prevention, like online learning, take practice. Assess your current skill levels and learn more about how to develop proficiency in the following critical areas of online learning:

  • Time Management: Mind Tools provides a free online assessment that I often recommend to my students. Use the interactive Time Management Quiz to explore your skills related to goal setting, prioritization, managing interruptions, procrastination, and scheduling.
  • Resilience: How well are you able to persist, and continue working toward your goals, even when faced with a crisis? About.com’s Resilience Self Test provides you with detailed feedback and resources based on your responses to questions like “Are you able to take a step back and laugh when difficult things happen?”
  • Motivation: What is your attitude toward reaching your goals? We are all motivated in different ways and by different factors, and our motivation levels can change as we encounter challenging situations. Staying positive can be key to staying motivated during difficult times. The Motivation Self-Assessment from McGraw-Hill helps you monitor your current outlook on school and work, and identify a few helpful techniques along the way.

As we approach the end of the year, adding new items to your list of things to do may seem like adding to your overall stress levels. There are, however, benefits related to including stress management activities to your schedule. These are precautions you can take now to make fulfilling your goals a little bit easier, and avoid surprises down the road.

Whether it’s taking a few minutes every day to meditate, sharing your concerns with someone on your support team, or taking a day off, consider adding one new stress management technique to your routine in the coming months. Not everything you try will work well for you, and not everything will work the first time. Allow yourself the room to experiment and find the most effective strategies to use during the rest of this academic term and the ones that follow.

What are your favorite stress management techniques? Share your recommendations with other online students here.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog