PhD students have some of the poorest mental health of ANY professional – inside or outside research. Even worse, the turbulence associated with science and research careers does not make things easier. Thus, building resilience and copying strategies before you need them will be important to long-term health and success. Here are 6 strategies – note your thoughts, analyse your thoughts, be mindful, note good things in your life, have a balanced life, live in alignment with your values.
Good day, there bakers, writers, and rock stars! If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that I’ve talked a bit about my own challenges with mental health, building my own resilience, and bouncing back from setbacks and adversity. So, today I’m going to talk about some of the things that I think are important when it comes to building your resilience and getting better. These are the things that at various times particularly in the recent past I’ve used to try and increase and improve my resilience. I think this is really important for researchers to focus on building resilience. Particularly as what I would call preventive maintenance. So, before there’s a problem do these kinds of things rather than corrective maintenance which is what I did. Which is when there’s a problem then go out and find the solution to it. Now it might seem counterintuitive to you know, “If it’s not broke don’t fix it”, but when we’re talking about our own mental health and our own resilience. I think it’s really important to get out in front of it, and to do preventive maintenance rather than corrective maintenance. So, here are 6 things that you can do to help build your resilience.
The first thing you can do is the identification. So, what are the things the thoughts you have that are not helpful? So, that might be thoughts like, “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not a good writer.” “I’m not a good researcher.” “I’m not a good PhD student.” “I’m not a good supervisor” or so and so is better than me. Or “I’m a failure.” So, that’s the first thing, identify those thoughts. You might write them down in a journal and just note yourself when you’re thinking that way. That’ll be it’s a really easy thing to fall into a trap of having those negative thoughts. What I’ve found is when I go, “Oh, hang on! I’m doing that again.” I’m being really self-critical and saying, “I’m not good enough.” Catching it helps me stop that thought process and in the loop of constantly thinking, “I’m not good enough, I’m not good enough” or that person thinks “I’m not good enough” or that person thinks “I’ve failed” or whatever. So, one identify.
Two is analyze your thinking. So, the next thing is if you want to try and stop those thoughts of “I’m not good enough”, you might say “What is the evidence for that thought?” What is the evidence that I’m not a good researcher versus what’s the evidence that I am a good researcher?” So, the evidence that you’re not a good researcher that might lead you down this pathway of “I’m not good enough” might be a journal article rejection. But the evidence that you are good enough might be that you collected all the data in the first place. That you put it all together and that even though the article got rejected two-thirds of it was actually good. Two-thirds of it the reviewers said was good. It was just one-third of it that needs work. So, analyze your thoughts. Think about what it is. What’s the evidence for you to think like that? Okay so, that’s about thoughts.
The next thing is stuff that you can do in advance of getting anxious or in advance of getting depressed, but also when you are anxious or depressed. I acknowledge that at times getting out of that depressive or anxious state is hard. It’s easy for me to say this is what you should do, but it’s harder to actually go ahead and do it.
So, the next thing is to be to be mindful to be present in the moment right now. I’ve seen lots of different ways of doing this. So, there’s a common technique that apparently is used in the military, and to help calm soldiers for doing something or after they’ve done something stressful. That’s called box breathing. So, if you think about a 4 by 4 square for seconds. perhaps. So, you breathe in for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Breathe out for 4 seconds. Breathe in. Hold your breath for 4 seconds and start again. So, that’s the box. So, we’re going to breathe in, breathe out. Sorry, breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out, hold your breath. If you do that, do several I guess, Rotations of that. You find yourself calming down relatively quickly. Apparently, there’s a bunch of science behind that about stimulating the vagus nerve, increasing oxygenation, etc. It also really helps you focus on your breathing. Because it takes some effort particularly early on to slow your breathing down, so that you can breathe in over 4 seconds, and then hold your breath for 4 seconds. There’re other things to bring yourself into the present moment. I’ve seen people talk about eating a spoonful of salt. I’m not sure that would be good for your long-term health. But supposedly that can bring you right into the present moment because the power of that taste is so strong.
I’ve employed techniques such as wiggling my toes and try to wiggle each toe individually. If toes are too hard, you could try it first with your fingers and go through them one by one. Really slow and deliberate. So, it’s about bringing your attention to what’s happening right now. You’ve got 5 senses. So, you could potentially come up with the technique for each sense. So, what do I currently see? What do I currently smell? What do I currently taste? What am I currently touching? And what am I currently hearing?
So, the next thing is to look. So, look on the bright side. So, be grateful. Have gratitude evidence shows that people who have keep gratitude journals are generally more resilient. They have less depressive and anxious episodes. So, again this is more of a preventive rather than a corrective measure. So, whether it’s weekly, daily. Write down things that you’re happy with for that day or that you’re grateful for that day. That can be really useful.
Next thing to do is to have a balanced life. So, what I’ve seen a lot of academics do particularly starting out in PhD is to focus on everything or bring all of their life to focus on their academic work. On their research. This happens in PhD times because you feel like, “I just got to get the next experiment done” or “I’ve just got to get the next chapter written.” “I’ve just got to get the next article done and then I’ll have a break.” But the problem is it’s never really done. Like I said you know, you get a rejection, so you’ve got to go back to work. There’s always another sample to collect. There’s always another data point to look at. So, instead have a balanced life. Sets life. Send some boundaries. Decide that your PhD is 9 to 5, Monday to Friday or 10 till 6. Or 8 to 4 or whatever it might be. Have 2 days a break at least a week, and don’t fill your entire life with it. Lots of people attempted to do things like cancel Christmas or not go to birthdays or not go to this social event. As a result, your life becomes more and more and more internally focused on that PhD. As a result of that if something goes wrong in your PhD, if your PhD is 80 of your life, then 80 percent of your life is now in trouble. Whereas if your PhD or your research is 50 of your life and something goes wrong then only 50 of your life is in trouble. And if your PhD or research is only 10 of your life and something goes wrong in there then it’s only 10 in trouble. So, think about having a balanced life.
Then the final thing is to live in alignment with your values. I think as researchers particularly in biomedical science, we can drift away from what our values are. So, I’ve seen biomedical scientists starting out wanting to focus on one kind of research, and then because the money or their supervisor or the results discourage progress in a particular direction, they start doing stuff that is in less alignment with their values. So, that might be that they start doing more work on animals and they don’t want to do animal-based research. It might mean that they start moving further and further away from the fundamental research that they want to do when they’re moving more into applied. It might mean that they are spending more and more time working on a particular system that they’re not overly interested in. So, be really, really, really careful about a living alignment with your values.
So, there you have it. Six things that I’ve used and that you could potentially use to increase your resilience as a researcher. Take care. Let me know how it goes.