At the start of the second year of my master’s, I put a sign on the wall behind my desk—right at eye-level so I could see it every time I glanced up from my laptop. The stress of life, classes, and the first set of multiple assignments had sent me spiralling. In the aftermath, I grabbed a notecard, a permanent marker and some blu-tack, and I made a little sign.
It said, “Don’t listen to Stupid Brain. Everything’s okay. You’re fine…”
‘Stupid Brain’ was the name I gave my thoughts in those moments when stress overwhelmed me. The times when anxiety and panic piled on top of me and sent my mind racing like a whirlwind I couldn’t see or think through.
‘Stupid Brain’ followed me everywhere during my degree, always taking over when I needed it the least. When I was staring down a deadline on the most important assignment in my degree, realising my draft was nearly two thousand words too long and that I had no idea what to do or how to fix it, there was ‘Stupid Brain’—trapping me in my panic until my mind was useless.
When I was attempting to restructure and plan my report for the third time, desperately trying to make it work with a deadline getting closer and closer, there was ‘Stupid Brain’ again. Constantly aware of every minute that ticked by, every second I spent floundering, slowly growing more stressed because I was aware of how much time I was wasting while I spiralled but couldn’t do anything to stop it.
‘Stupid Brain’ was the voice in my head that said I wouldn’t get anything finished in time, that I wouldn’t make my deadlines, that I would fail. ‘Stupid Brain’ was the state of mind that made me so frantic my hands would tremble and all I could do was pace.
I thought that being overwhelmed like this was happening because I was a student. After all, stress is incredibly common for young adults. University is almost an exercise in stress and mayhem, forcing students to push through because they have no other choice, so it was no surprise that this kind of spiral happened quite frequently.
What was a surprise was that it kept happening after I graduated.
This response to stress that started in university carried over into my life. ‘Stupid Brain’ continued to strike. Everything felt so uncertain after I graduated so it’s not unexpected that my life still feels overwhelming, that the stress over something small and mundane can become something massive.
Earlier this year, I remember suddenly having to complete two job applications in three days while also needing to decide whether or not to apply for a position with a deadline that afternoon and being completely overwhelmed. I couldn’t think, couldn’t decide—too many things were happening at once and I just couldn’t. By the time I had calmed down and stopped the whirlwind in my head, I didn’t have enough time to write a good cover letter that afternoon anyway.
I had to develop my own strategies for dealing with ‘Stupid Brain’—little tricks which don’t stop the stress but do make it manageable enough that I can think and work through it. They won’t solve everything, but they may help you to cope with stress in the moment so you can stop spiralling and figure things out.
Understand that ‘Stupid Brain’ happens—and learn how to beat it
For me, stress traps my mind in a loop, thoughts going round and round, faster and faster. I get more stressed, my anxiety increasing until emotions completely overtake the rational thinking which could calm me down. That’s when ‘Stupid Brain’ really shows up…
It’s this panic without cause that makes me jittery. The voice in my head that says “I can’t, I won’t, I’ll never…”, because catastrophising is what my ‘Stupid Brain’ does best.
The best way I’ve found to handle this—to get myself out of the spiral of stress and anxiety—is to physically get myself away from whatever I’m stressing about (usually my laptop), then think my way through it.
The first question I ask myself is if everything is going to fall apart if I don’t do something right this second. The answer to that is no, which means I have time. Then I ask myself if anything else ‘Stupid Brain’ is telling me is true. More often than not, the answer is no.
“I can’t get this assignment done.” That’s not true.
“I’ll never get a job, I’m failing.” That’s also a lie.
“I won’t get this assignment done in time.” After I’ve organised and made a plan, I know that’s not true either.
When stress becomes overwhelming, it can be a gateway for all kinds of panic, fear, anxiety and doubt. ‘Stupid Brain’ can and will throw all manner of irrational thoughts at you when you’re spiralling.
Sometimes, you just need to take a moment and try to bring in some rationality.
Though sometimes, learning how to beat ‘Stupid Brain’ isn’t just a one-person job. Seeking help from others—whether it’s your own support system, professional help, or a career coach—can be a great way to stop yourself from spiralling because they are entirely separate from your own stress. I’ve often found that having that outside perspective from someone I can trust can be just what I need to help re-engage my rational brain because they say the same things my rational brain already knows.
Lists, Planners and Priorities
When stress overwhelms me, having five things I need to do feels like I have 37 things I have to do all at once. This has never been true, so I force my brain to realise that. I write lists.
I write a list of those five things I have to do. I figure out when they need to be done by and write that down too. I ask myself, of those five things, what has to come first?
I assess, prioritise. If there’s something that can wait, I write it down somewhere else so it gets out of my head and it can’t distract me.
Then I make more lists—lists of the things I need to do now, the things I need to do over the next few days, the things I need to do this week. I force myself to lay it all out, write it all down, and put it somewhere I can see it.
I get the whirlwind of tasks out of my brain and onto paper and, suddenly, it’s no longer overwhelming. Instead, it’s a manageable, rational plan that looks achievable, with milestones and objectives I can tick off each day.
It’s something I can (and do) look at every time the stress tries to creep back in because it’s physical proof that I’m on track to get everything done when it needs to be, regardless of what my mind may try and tell me.
It took me many months after graduation to realise that, without a job to fill my week, I was still operating on university time.
Respecting my own time was a luxury I never had as a master’s student, but I knew I couldn’t keep up the same pace I had before my graduation. So, don’t let your post-study life be like uni, where you’re willing to work any hour of any day. Set some boundaries. Keep stressful things like job searching and applications to your weekdays and establish an ‘end of work’ time for yourself in the afternoons so you can wind down. Try to always give yourself the weekend.
When I decide that my weekends will be free of the stresses of my weekdays, I’m giving myself time to rest, time to follow my own creative pursuits, time where I don’t feel any pressure. I can lay in bed for hours if I want to without worrying about wasting time because I decided I would have that time for myself.
Learning to set these boundaries allowed me to actually value my own time, and although it took practice, it’s a simple way to gain some control and help manage general stress levels.
Remember that “Everything’s okay. You’re fine…”
When I’m caught in a whirlwind of stress and anxiety, it feels like everything’s falling apart around me, that everything is going wrong. It’s easy for me to forget that the second part of my sign is just as important as the first.
That’s why I have that little sign up—to remind me that everything is okay, and that no matter what I’m feeling in that moment, I am fine.
‘Stupid Brain’ isn’t a disaster because stress is (unfortunately) a part of life. It’s a thing that I can and will get through as long as I remember:
Don’t listen to ‘Stupid Brain’.
Everything’s okay. You’re fine…