The PhD voice

5 ways to keep your mental health during the PhD

Hi all! Since last week I had the Pixels Camp (which was awesome, btw, with a post coming about it next week), no post about PhD life came out. However, today, October 10th, it is World Mental Health Day, so I thought about speaking of a topic that is so hard to talk about and is a stigma, specially in the academic world that is so prone to mental illness. I thought about giving it a more positive twist to inspire you to prevent any symptoms you might have of a starting mental illness during your PhD and make it a more positive experience!

Starting about me: I don’t like talking much about my personal life here in the blog but I can say that I have never been clinically depressed in my life, despite the fact that some very close persons have and I tried my best to help them. I also know people who suffered from other forms of mental illness. Sometimes I feel anxious and doubt myself and my choices. Anyway I guess it’s pretty normal to feel like this. I feel ironically that during my PhD I am in a great place in my life now but sometimes it was not the case. For instance, during my MSc thesis work, I was on one of the most difficult times of my life and it really stretched me thin. I know some changes in my life are coming and I want to keep being in this great happy place! I want to keep using the tools I have been using. Coming to that in a bit!

About mental illness and the PhD: the prevalence of mental illness is staggering! The pressure is huge, it is a very independent work, and things fail very often. So it is a cocktail to make you end up feeling like crap if you fall into the trap. According to a study from the University of Luton, UK, the prevalence of mental illness in academics in the UK is 53%!!! This is huge! In Portugal I have not found any statistics this direct, but a study carried out in Universidade da Beira Interior found that about 18% of college students had some form of mental illness. This is scary as hell and takes a huge toll in productivity of a country. The worst of all is that we have fear of talking about it! Sometimes even our lab mate is suffering from a mental illness and we have no idea and can be quick to judge. So it is important to not feel ashamed, and this is something that I also have to learn.

Moving on to how to keep the mental fitness up, here are my tips that I hope will apply to you!

1. Sleep enough and sleep well

We are in a society where we have so much activities and so much entretainment at our hands that even it we had very relaxed jobs we would sleep badly. So, with all the work we want to make during our PhD’s, because we are ambitious and perfectionists, and maybe because sometimes supervisors demand it, who has time for trivial things like sleep? Result: going to work tired and making more mistakes. So why not sleep the ideal time for you? I’m not an advocate of the 8 hours of sleep per day. Everyone has its own optimal time but I guess less than 6 hours is too little. So I now try to sleep about 7h every day and not stay in the computer until too late. I really feel the toll when I don’t! In the last day of Pixels Camp I slept the grand total of 4h and was really feeling like crap when I woke up. But the next day I slept 10h =D

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2. Avoid bringing work home

I admit I do this sometimes, even on weekends! Lately if you follow me on Instagram you might see my outdoor photos have been quieter than lately and it’s not because the weather has been bad, it’s because of having to work. However, make it only a temporary fix and become more productive at your workspace whenever possible! I know that when working on a lab, like I did for my MSc, you are dependent on equipment availability and sometimes I stayed until midnight to finish the damn experiments, so it might be harder to organize, but try your best so that PhD does not engulf the rest of your life! 😉

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3. Have a hobbie to look forward to

Of course work comes first, but when you get outside the lab, take care of your hobbies and make them non-negotiable. Of course it might be a good idea to reduce to only one hobbie since time is a limited resource and you want to be rested to work. Pick one that you love! I am one of those persons that has A LOT of passions in life and wants to give a go at everything. But I found my perfect hobbie: blogging! While this blog is still small, I am super impressed by everything I learned from other bloggers and students, particularly in the Twitter chats, and writing posts and editing photos for you gives me another sense of purpose. I also love baking and baking a cake for family and friends makes me super happy (sugar rush, cof cof). But let’s go into the other “hobbie” that I have and that you should have to…

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Side note: I love Winston and I don’t watch New Girl for a loooong time. Might get back into it =p

4. EXERCISE!

Come on, we sit all day accumulating stress and ruminating about how our work is moving slow! Of course the occasional ice cream and movie watching feels good, but the long-term secret to make you feel happy and strong is exercise! I started exercising more regularly in 2013 and since I am resilient I work out at home or run. Come on, all the money I save by not going to a gym goes into my travels =D I love running, yoga, pilates and HIIT. My favorite Youtube channels for this are Blogilates, Tone It Up, Yoga with Adriene and Boho Beautiful. I also used to swim a bit. Anyway, there is no right way to work out, just find the best workout for you and look forward to it that you can even wake up early to fit it into your day! Just don’t assume your workout is eating cookies all night long.

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5. Talk to someone

All has been well for me, but I know of cases where the supervisor relationship is not so good, or you don’t relate with colleagues, or even worse: you screw up yourself thinking you’re not good enough. The good old Impostor Syndrome! I feel this sometimes like everyone but I try to meditate and be more confident. However, if you have this thing you can’t figure out what to do about it, talk with a trusted family member, friend, student counselor, or even a therapist. Be fast to identify what is going on and be open to receive help. If the case is more serious and you really need medical help, consult your options with a specialized doctor. I also talk about my concerns sometimes and get really good advice from the people who care about me 🙂 even on Twitter fellow students are really supportive too!

I could give more advice but there are my 5 top tips on staying mentally sane during the PhD! I am really rooting for you if you are going through tough times and believe you will get better. Also, if you need to stop, stop for your sake. There’s no work prize worth ruining your mental and physical health!

How do your stay mentally fit during your PhD?

Cátia

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