Managing stress and taking your job search step by step

Dealing with stress is difficult, but it is a skill you can hone by understanding what causes and what releases your stress.

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Finding work can seem like a job in itself – so, treat it in the same way. Decide on a number of hours to spend on it each day and try to take at least two days off every week.

If your job hunt is causing you stress, you’re not alone. According to a snapshot survey in March 2020 of nearly 1,000 students and young people by Cybil (a research business owned by the same company as TARGETjobs), over 60% of respondents believed their career confidence had been affected as a direct result of the pandemic. This was at the beginning of the pandemic, so it would be unsurprising if this percentage has increased now we're starting to see the longer-term impacts.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can lead to an important learning curve. When you manage or work through something that causes you stress, your resilience and ability to effectively deal with future difficulties can increase. However, when stress becomes overwhelming (eg if it feels like you can’t ‘switch off’ from it or it is impacting your overall well-being), that’s a sign that you should look at how you manage it.

With this in mind, TARGETjobs has partnered with Student Minds to give you some guidance. We begin by looking at the importance of releasing your stress and ways to approach this, as we think understanding how stress works can help you to manage it. If you’d prefer, however, you can jump down to our tips for preventing stress from building up during your job hunt.

Read, watch and listen your way through Student Minds' guide to student mental health and well-being by registering here – for a pathway that provides information about mental health and services, advice for looking after yourself and others and helpful insights into the experiences of recent graduates.

Your stress container

You will probably have an insight into some of the causes of your stress. However, taking the time to properly think through why you’re stressed can help you to put things into perspective and improve your ability to manage your feelings.

One of the models used when discussing stress is the ‘stress container’. In this, everyone’s container is a different size – based on how vulnerable they are to stress (how much they can cope with before they begin to struggle with their mental health). No matter how large the container, however, each one has a ‘tap’ from which stress can flow out.

Helpful coping strategies allow this ‘tap’ to work while unhelpful coping strategies block it, thereby allowing the container to overflow with stress. You might not be able to prevent stress from flowing into your container but, by learning the coping strategies that work for you, you can release it.

Knowing what’s flowing into your stress container

The first step to destressing is knowing the causes of your stress – and considering how to combat them. One approach is to, when you’re in a calm mood, spend some time listing the things that you know are contributing to your stress. For some people, writing them down on paper can be helpful as seeing your stressors (causes of stress) in front of you can make them appear more manageable. Then, taking each point and considering how you might control the level of stress it leads to can help you to come up with some healthy coping mechanisms to fall back on when you’re struggling.

It will be useful to remember that you’ll be more in control of some things than others. An exam you feel prepared for, for instance, is likely to seem ‘in your hands’ to a greater extent than a global pandemic or your grief. What’s important here is acknowledging what you’re controlling – the impact of the stressor on your mental health rather than the stressor itself.

Managing the impact of a stressor might mean tidying your room or revising for an exam, but it could also mean giving yourself a restricted amount of time in your day during which you allow yourself to think about or read about something that is worrying you, and then following up with a relaxing or distracting activity before continuing with your day. The ‘Advice and information’ section of Student Space includes articles for managing specific sources of stress (such as grief and money difficulties), while its ’Life after university’ section is dedicated to helping you through your job search.

Structuring your job hunt

Organising your time can also help. Finding work can sometimes seem like a job in itself – so, treat it in the same way. This doesn’t mean doing a full nine-to-five every day; instead, decide on a reasonable number of hours to spend on it each day and try to take at least two full days off every week. Creating a timetable with allocated time slots for your tasks could give you a structure that will help you to stay focussed. Alternatively, you might decide to use a strategy for organisation that has worked for you before – perhaps when juggling lots of deadlines at university.

What your tasks are will depend on the stage you’re at in your job search. If that’s choosing between career paths, for instance, you may want to spend time researching what each one entails and reaching out to people who work in the industries that interest you – eg on LinkedIn. If you’re at the application stage, you’ll probably want to portion out time for researching employers, tailoring your CV to those you are applying to, and writing covering letters and applications. You are more likely to secure a job by sending fewer strong applications than through a catch-all approach, so don’t overwhelm yourself with hundreds of applications.

Turning the tap on your job search stress

Whichever way you decide to organise your job search, make sure you schedule in breaks, relaxation and time spent doing things you enjoy and that interest you. Use this time as planned and try not to feel guilty about it. This will help you to release stress, which – most importantly – will protect your mental well-being, but should also improve your concentration and motivation in your job search.

The best ways to manage stress will differ from person to person. Ensuring you look after your wellbeing by making use of immediate stress releasers when things start to feel too much is a good idea. These might include exercise, listening to music, carrying out the 7/11 breathing exercise, practising mindfulness, getting out in nature or treating yourself to a slice of cake after a strong day of job searching.

Building up an interest in something unrelated to your career can work as a regular reminder that it isn’t ‘everything’ and help you to see some of the positives in the ‘bigger picture’. This could always be related to your immediate stress releaser – eg you might listen to your ‘Chilled R&B’ Spotify playlist to destress and watch your favourite artists on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts on YouTube to keep up your interest in music.

Eliminating your stress exacerbators

You may have noticed some of your stress exacerbators – those things that mean you feel more stressed, regardless of the number or ‘size’ of the stressors you’re dealing with. These might be unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overworking, avoiding work or excessive drinking. While everyone falls back on these from time to time, it’s a good idea to try to replace them with some of your stress releasers when you think they’re causing your ‘stress container’ to fill up more quickly.

You may find some stress exacerbators difficult to control or replace – such as inability to sleep or an unhealthy coping mechanism that has become a habit. If you’re struggling and think your mental health is being affected, it’s important to contact your GP or a mental health service to support you. Mind’s guide to support and services is a good place to look.

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