We all know that doing a PhD is hard: there are mental challenges, physical exhaustion, and self-doubt that must be overcome to successfully navigate this path. How do we last on this very long journey without allowing the weight of it all to overwhelm us? What does it really mean to take care of ourselves while still managing all that we do?
Five years ago, I was teaching a group of psychology graduate students, talking about their self-care while working in mental health settings and one said, “We can’t do self-care, most days I don’t have time to poop.”
While I understand the feeling, and time pressure; I do think we often have a misunderstanding of what self-care really means. Often, we view it as weekend trips to the spa with our friends or nights spent drinking and socialising. And sometimes people disguise self-destructive behaviours as self-care. This perception of self-care is that it is an activity that must be planned, takes a large amount of time, often involves expense, and can lead to more physical strain (hangovers are not great for concentration or academic writing). But as a therapist and current PhD student on my own journey with mental health, I want to challenge that notion and make clear what self-care is (and is not).
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TW: Suicidal ideation, eating disorder
In 2017 I started my Undergraduate course in BA Geography. Going into it, I had my own perceptions of what a ‘perfect’ student, researcher and scientist looked like. I thought to be successful you needed to have an empowered, independent, and busy personality. The ‘hustle’ movement of glamorising all-nighters and drinking as many energy drinks as you can to give you the anxiety buzz needed for staying awake. I thought my diary needed to be full of study days, extra sessions, and experience in the field. I struggled with all of these because as a recovering anorexic with bipolar disorder and a long history of perfectionism I found it hard to meet both the expectations I put on myself and the reality of university life.
It took a lot of courage for me to be able to talk to my supervisors, my tutors and my institution about the mental health issues I was facing, and it took an admission to the mental health crisis team to finally take that step of saying, “Hey—I am not okay and I need support.” For the remaining two years of my degree, I constantly battled between wanting to be the best I could be and do the best I could do, but also struggling with being a student with a mental illness. In my third year, March 2020, I hit a rock bottom with that struggle and it nearly ended my life. I was underweight, severely depressed and I had little energy to function without thinking about dissertations, research, and lectures.
Fast forward to present day: I am a Post Graduate Researcher in Law and Criminology working on research that I believe has changed my perceptions of not only academia but also life in recovery. My aim with this blog is to share some of my coping strategies I have learned along the way with you.
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Ostensibly it would not seem to be so: the sun is shining, I have a safe and lovely home, a supportive partner, and I love my work. Everything is fine—but I am not.
I am sitting in the garden, trying to compress the rising panic, breathing slow and deep to ebb away the tears building behind my eyes, and the tightening of my throat. Earlier today I got up, did my yoga, had a healthy breakfast, chatted to my partner, then got a tea and sat down to work. But as I scrolled through my emails, for no apparent reason my anxiety kicked in. Every small request or notification was somehow more pressure than I could bear.
So, I stopped. I shut down my laptop and walked away. I told my partner how I felt and came outside. And then I sat here in the garden thinking, I had to communicate this to you all: it’s okay to stop, it’s okay to put yourself first.
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