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: Continue reading