Why An Engineering Degree Is Stressful & How To Deal With It

Out of the 100’s of undergraduate degrees, engineering is consistently declared as the hardest to complete. 

Therefore, it’s no surprise that a lot of stress comes with it. Until university, I was never really a stressed person. Before writing a final in high school I might have gotten minor butterflies but that was it. I thought that’s what stress was and I wasn’t wrong. However, I thought that stress was easy to control. I thought it disappeared after a short period of time. This definition of stress held true for me up until engineering.  

Engineering put a lot of pressure on me and as a result I suffered from a lot of health complications. I was forced to come up with methods for dealing with this stress. Engineering Worth was an idea born from the massive amounts of stress I faced during my undergraduate degree. I made this blog because I wanted to make the journey less stressful for you. I want to give you the toolset early on that will allow you to handle the stress that will come. Try to take what I say in this article seriously and apply it to your life. You may be at a low point in your life right now or in a very dark place. Please, keep your head up. Time will pass. The sun comes up every day and your life will change. It has been my experience that life changes in a cyclic manner similar to the seasons. Sometimes we go through winters and this allows us to enjoy the summers more.  

01 | What Is Stress?

First, we need to take a closer look at what stress is. Stress is the bodies natural reaction to a dangerous situation. It is not an inherently bad thing. Long ago, before humans lived in homes, we lived in the wilderness. Wild animals also lived in the wilderness. Some of them were threatened by us and we were threatened by some of them. Every day we had to be prepared to kill and be killed. A simple rustle in the bushes could set off our fight or flight reaction and we would be ready to pick one of the two actions. Stress was a short term response to do or die moments.  

Since the days where we lived as one with nature, the world has changed immensely. On the other hand, our brains haven’t changed as much. The difference is now we feel stressed over things like our grades, our jobs, or even public speaking. Harmless activities feel like they ARE do or die moments and our bodies feel threatened. So, the same stress reaction occurs. This is a common line of thinking for a stressed student: If I do bad on this test, I will get a bad grade in this class. If I get a bad grade in this class, I won’t get a job. If I don’t get a job, I’ll be broke and be forced to live on the streets and my life will be OVER! When you break it down like that, it makes sense why we get stressed out. We think our lives will TRULY be over after one misstep. However, keep in mind that you are never in as much harm as you think. One misstep will NOT define your whole life and the long term stress of thinking that it will is bad for your health.  

The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives. If we are kept in a state of stress for long periods, it can be detrimental to our health. The results of having elevated cortisol levels can be an increase in sugar and blood pressure levels, and a decrease in libido.
— Stress.org

02 | Why Is An Engineering Degree Stressful?

Many wise people argue that time is our most precious commodity. You can’t buy more time. You have a finite amount of it and, in fact, you’re losing more time everyday! We have to question every moment that we spend our time on and ask ourselves: is this worth my time? An engineering degree requires a huge commitment of your time. According to mymajors.com, engineering majors spend the most time - out of any other major - studying outside of the classroom (~19 hours a week). The workload is immense. Students worry about doing well on tests, meeting deadlines, missing out on social events, losing their humanity from studying so much, debt, and getting a job. All of these stresses may be compounded with other stresses in life such as a difficult home life, work, relationships, etc. The difficulty of managing one’s time and balancing a growing to-do list makes engineering very stressful. With all that said, let’s get into some techniques for actually managing our stress. 

03 | Techniques For Dealing With The Stress

3A | Quitting Time & Personal Time

The first technique is known as your Quitting Time. The term is actually borrowed from Gretchen Rubin’s book, “Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives”. After a specified time each day, refuse to do any more work unless circumstances are VERY rare. This puts a hard cutoff between our studying time and our personal time. The goal is to get more done in a shorter period of time rather than extending the amount of time we study for. We’re going for quality time, not quantity. For example, try to get more done in 4 hours of studying rather than increasing your studying time to 6 hours. Four hours of highly focused studying time is way more effective than six hours of semi-focused studying. If you watched my video on deep work you know that 4 hours is typically the agreed upon limit for deep work in a day. After your 4 hours in a day are up, it’s time to relax and call it quits for the day. 

3B | Planning & Worrying Time

Before you quit for the day, I want you to write down everything that you have completed and what you plan to do the next day. I have been in the habit of doing this for a while and I’ve found that it really helps me bring closure to the day. I can be proud of all that I’ve completed and I have an idea of where I want to start the next day. I can then happily transition into my break time without guilt. When the next day comes I can hit the ground running because I already know what I want to get done first.  

If you find that you worry a lot or that you are an anxious person, I want you to schedule worrying time. Schedule a 15 to 30 minute block each day where you can worry all you want. Write down all of your worries and even how you can begin to address them. When this time is up your worrying STOPS. No more worrying. You can only take the actions that you wrote down to counter those worries. If you follow my blog you know how important habits are. Habits aren’t just important for studying, but for life. Scheduling time to worry forces you to get into the habit of worrying only at a certain time each day and then taking steps to eliminate that worry. Worrying - on its own - is a worthless habit. Worrying accomplishes nothing. But, developing the habit of addressing your worries and taking actionable steps to calm them is game changing. According to psychologist Robert Epstein, the most effective way to reduce stress is to plan.  

Johnny Cash used Scheduling to ‘Worry’. Although scheduling to worry sounds odd, it’s a proven strategy for reducing anxiety. Instead of worry continually, a person saves the worry until the appointed time, and then worries until the time is up.
— Gretchen Rubin

3C | Consistent Sleep and Study Schedule

This tip is about creating good habits again. A good sleep schedule can be instrumental at preventing stress. Determine the optimal amount of sleep you need each day and consistently try to achieve that goal. According to the American Psychological Association

Adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels than those who sleep at least eight hours a night (5.5 vs. 4.4 on a 10-point scale) .

If you’re interested in improving your sleep check out this article I wrote. When you have a consistent study schedule, your brain will fall into a state of flow much easier. As a result, you will start to get a lot more done in a shorter period of time. The less time you have to spend on studying, the more time you can spend on other areas of your life. Once you create your study schedule, stick to it. It doesn’t matter if you only have an hour of work to do today. If you have committed to studying 4 hours a day then you are going to study 4 hours a day no matter what. You’re going to be proactive. If you’re done what you were supposed to get done for the day move ahead. Study next weeks topics, or start studying for your next exam. I did this in my final year of engineering and I found that my stress levels had reduced a lot.  

3D | Relaxation Days

According to an article in entrepreneur:

Studies show that performance increases after breaks of all durations: from extended vacations down to microbreaks of 30 seconds.

Pick one day a week where you are going to do absolutely no work. Not even a little bit (no checking e-mail)! On this day you get to indulge in the pleasures of life, read a book, catch up on your favourite shows, be social, or do anything that you want. This is a day dedicated to relaxing and having fun. If you’re like me, you will have a lot of trouble with this. Even on my days off, I feel like working. My relaxation day ended up being Friday. After class I would come home and either get ready to go out or stay in. If you don’t want to take a whole day off, like me, you can make Friday your relaxation day as well. You will approach your work from a much more appreciative and renewed mindset, after a relaxation day. Think of your brain like a muscle. After the gym you have to let your muscles relax and repair so that they can grow stronger. Do the same for your brain. Allow it to rest for a bit and unconsciously make connections while you are off having fun. It’s likely that you will return to your work with a new perspective. 

3E | High Density Fun

You may have heard of this term in one of my previous articles. It’s a term I borrowed from Thomas Frank of CollegeInfoGeek. When it’s past your quitting time or a relaxation day do something that is deeply fun. Don’t read my blog, or scroll through Buzzfeed and Facebook. Meet with friends, or family. Watch a new TV show, movie, or play a new video game. Go on a date. Have an experience. New experiences are like a multi-vitamin but instead of nutrients they are packed full of high density fun which helps you relax and feel refreshed.  

3F | Stoicism & Gratitude Mindset

The last technique I want to impart onto you may be the most powerful of them all. It is the combination of two mindsets: stoicism and gratitude. School of Life has made an awesome video that breaks down the basic idea of Stoicism:  

Stoic people constantly imagine the worst possible outcome that could happen in their lives. Then they tell themselves, that in the end, it will all be okay. This is a powerful mindset. Yes, you may do bad in a class. You may get a failing grade. Maybe employers really will NOT want to hire you. But, you can find a way to make a few dollars. All you really need to survive is some food and water. You don’t need new clothes. Instead of driving, you can walk to where you need to get to. Will this be a comfortable life? Of course not but you will be alive. You will still be breathing. You can still experience a sunrise or feel the rain gently massaging your body. You can still enjoy walking on the beach with the warm sand in your toes. It’s unlikely that things will ever get so bad to the point where you are forced to live on the streets. You have family and friends that will help support you. You can get a job in other industries. You can work for yourself. You can find a job after some time and some effort. Just know that even at the very worst, you will still be alive and well. This is an empowering mindset. This is also where gratitude comes into play. Be thankful for all that you do have. So, you got a bad grade but you still have a warm home don’t you? Warm food on the table? Clean water to drink? Family and friends who love and support you? We came into this world with nothing, and we will leave with nothing. Ownership is just an illusion. Everything is borrowed, and we can be thankful for everything that has been lent to us. 

04 | Conclusion

That’s all I have to say. Hopefully, I’ve given you some tools that help you better deal with the stress of engineering. Thanks for reading!