The pace of life in today’s world and a cultural focus on productivity and outcomes leave little time for self-care. Taking time for mental hygiene is not embedded in our culture in the way physical hygiene is; I would argue that both are equally important. You’ve probably heard or even used the phrase, “I thrive on stress.” In our scientific culture, long days and nights in the lab or in front of the computer are worn as a badge of honor, of dedication to the cause, or simply what must be done. And while low levels of temporary stress do lead to increases in some measures of performance and productivity, our bodies did not evolve to “thrive” on high levels of chronic stress. This leads to decreases in output and creativity, but is also correlated to long-term risks to your cardiovascular and immune health. Functioning on low levels of emotional energy and high levels of stress for long periods of time can feel like we’re treading water: we’re still breathing, but it’s not sustainable.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes us sinking to notice that something is wrong and feel required to take action. And while some of us notice the issues while we’re treading water, there’s a fear that putting in more energy to fix things followed by failure will only make things worse. Many things have been said about the PhD (and academic science in general) and whether or not continuing is worth it, including this recent blog in Science and this one on the “Valley of Sh*t.” As someone who was recently in that place, and has hit rock bottom at other points in my life, I’ve developed a three point strategy for turning discomfort and stress into personal growth, ultimately leading to what one of my past counselors has called “Radical Self-Care”, and a recognition of what my needs are in a situation. Though these three points are listed in the order that makes sense for me, sometimes there is a clear need for one over another. Care must be taken however, to not get stuck on one solution if it fails to get us where we want it to:
1. Change your perspective:
As a creative writer and biomedical scientist also interested in psychology, I get stuck in my head…a lot. It’s easy to lose perspective, and to forget that every stressor in our lives is filtered through the bias of our own experience. Sometimes, the stressor is a perceived conflict with someone who is on the same page as us, and communication is the issue. Other times, the stressors are so ingrained into our lives that we forget they’re stressors at all. As a recent example from my own life, I had to resort to start leaving my phone at home and make a conscious effort to stay off Facebook. Not only was it distracting me and breaking my focus, the constant barrage of political information and news along with other stressors was causing me high levels of anxiety.
Talking to friends, family, mentors you trust, or even trained counselors, can help give you a fresh perspective. The caveat is that these people in your life must understand that they’re there to actively listen and non-judgmentally check your perception of reality, not to unconditionally support your position and rile you up even more. Questions to them like, “does that make sense to you?” and “What does this sound like to you, from your perspective,” can help tease that role out of them. Counseling, mindfulness, and CBT from trained professionals also fall into this first category.
2. Change your environment:
As human beings, we have needs, both emotional and physical. When those needs aren’t being met, our emotional or physical energy levels can also go down. This is the part where you start prioritizing YOU, and it’s not selfish. This is the important distinction between self-esteem and self-compassion. If your needs for exercise and free play aren’t being met, take more time from work to do these things. Have conversations with your supervisors, loved ones, and colleagues about your need for (autonomy, respect, independence, security…fill in the blank with this list of needs.) Learn to say “NO”, and your schedule will begin not only to open up due to increased autonomy, but also because with higher emotional energy, you will be much more productive to finish the things you cannot say no to. Of course, many who are stuck in toxic relationships or environments spend plenty of years and energy in trying to change their own outlook (Strategy #1) or their partners, employers, environments, etc. (Strategy #2). Which brings me to Strategy #3.
Leaving is NOT failure, and it is also not a last-minute option. Leaving is what we do when our essential needs as human beings are not being met, when our common humanity is not being respected, and when those who we are involved in relationships with fail to pull their weight of the relationship. Figuring out when to leave is difficult, and again, having a good support network is essential to help us manage difficult transitions. If you are considering leaving, I recommend you practice what I call “Proactive Patience”: waiting for the best moment/opportunity for an exit, but actively working towards creating and attracting that opportunity. In the case of a PhD or Postdoc, it means looking at lab, department, or career alternatives, while at the same time building a network of people you trust who will advocate for you and support you through the transition.
Regardless of which Self-Care strategy is appropriate for your situation, know that being in a position where you feel more comfortable and confident in yourself will lead to greater life satisfaction and therefore success in your passions and career. As human beings, we are neither meant to tread water endlessly nor sink. We are meant to float, to swim, to fly.
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