Surviving the battle between yourself and the mind as a junior academic…

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Image Credit: Psych Learning Curve

There is a lot required for one to change. More so is required for mental health change which often seems invisible. There are plenty of guides here and there on how to change for the better, be healthier, more mindful. How to detox your body, get that fresh skin glow, healthier gut or simply be fit.

But, how does one defines a fit mind? Detoxed mind? Is everyone’s mind has the same needs as our biological bodies?

I came across a book in a charity shop that had stories of young women (20s) who suffer from mental health issues. Those issues may come across small when appearing from outside, for some it would be totally fine to be told ‘ just get on with it, what is it you have to worry about, you are so lucky’.

As a young woman, it is hard to admit that you may have difficulty with your mind taking over you in an unhealthy way. Why? Well, people would say that you are young, full of energy and opportunities, hence should not really worry about anything, how lucky you are just to be alive without troubles, have a job and education, family and even more, you can be married and happy in your relationship. What a hypocrite one can be not to appreciate this? Or else, you must be just weak and need to sort yourself out.

The awareness about mental health is although all around us. Being not just young but also young in the academic sector can be quite overwhelming. There are articles everywhere about pressures of being a PhD student, about pressures of a postdoc, about pressures of getting  a tenure. Yet, surely, we are not there to recognise those pressures appropriately when we are recruiting people. You do not put on your CV that you may have managed to accomplish your PhD while battling mental health problems, it is the publications remain to be on the list.

As someone who finished my PhD in 3 years, I now look back and wonder whether taking it longer and taking it easier would be a better choice. On my second year, I was diagnosed with pretty bad iron and B12 deficiency which took a good year if not year and a half out for me in terms of focus, energy, passion for things I used to like and forced me to the mindset of ‘let me just get through this and I ll deal with the rest later”. I was pulling through as nothing has happened but worked pretty much at the third of capacity I could have had if I was healthier. When trying to share my feelings of overwhelming both physically and mentally, I once got a comment from a pretty successful senior colleague ‘if you really can’t handle it, then you know, maybe its not for you?’

Back then few things came to rescue me, one of them was intensive exercise, I would drain my body to the point I could not think anymore. I did bodyweight, running, up to 200 burpees plus 15km run and also walk to work at times – all in one day. I rebuilt my iron levels but lost them as fast as I started doing all these crazy workouts.

I then started my therapy and that where all the other pieces started to come together, mind started to open up and energy started to flow. It is a gamble though. I was incredibly lucky to have someone who understood me, who shared with me her energy and gave me the wisdom I always had for others but not for myself. 6 months into therapy and there I was, I got married, finished my PhD, moved to another city and started a new job.

But then, the mind took over again. Academia gives you promises you will have fixed in your head – you step in your first year of PhD with an incredibly high hopes and dreams: one day you will have Dr title, one day it will be on your office door where you will welcome students and colleagues to talk about ideas you are so passionate about. But then that does not really come straight away or it may, but with the amount of hurdlers here and there. The  boxes on the list you need to tick grows and grows as time passes, a number of graduates increases and number of jobs available decreases.  Reality can slap on the face. You will be lucky then to find an academic who will support you, who will remind how good you are – that support will keep you going, reminding you to keep trying.

But its not that sad after all, even though all of the above may sound very dark. Changing perspective towards things can do wonders and it really worthy to put the effort into it so please bear with me.

Overcoming what I just outlined is really hard but it certainly worthy. You ‘ll find yourself growing during the journey and there is so much to learn. What you may need in the end is the space to let your mind flourish to let it be without being forced to meet certain requirements. Great ideas and projects can find its place regardless of how prestigious university you ll end up working in and the prestige of the journal you submitted your paper too. All of these start matter less. . ‘ There must be more to life than this…’ as the Queen song goes. I ‘ve been listening to it a lot in times of frustration and it does remind that you that there is so much more to life than this and mostly, what you need to do is to live for things that bring you energy.

With time, the realization that having a healthy mind really is something one needs and you ‘ll get there once you change the focus on yourself, working on yourself, from there all the other things will grow..

Here are few tools that I found useful myself and would like to share those who read just enough about detoxing your body and want to learn more on how to actually detox your mind/ It may sound too easy for others to tell you ‘ just go home and read a nice book. Cook, go for a walk’ – all of these do work of course but won’t last too long if the issue you fighting is hidden somewhere in the deeper core. Persistence and practice are key to carry on, keep routine, show up to your tasks even when bed wants to tuck you in and you never want to get up.

Here is my routine for pretty much every day, when I don’t follow it things can really get a bit messy, everyone may have different ones but stick to few, accomplishing those will make you feel good at the end of the week.

  1. Read (not an academic book) – 30 minutes a day of reading can do wonders, mainly reading- not watching Netflix or anything like that, podcasts can do as well, for a bit I also fund helpful to learning language via audiobook ( gives you mind some focus but you also learn new things)
  2. Have breakfast in bed if that’s your thing, take your time to start the day slowly…
  3. Exercise but gently – my choice is yoga! Only recently  I start really looking into it. I really immerse myself in it now as its one of these things where you have to be focused, where you feel your body alive and your mind can also be put in control  for half an hour a day.
  4. Have a separate time in your schedule to read email (really! – no notifications on your phone either, deleted the apps which will sent you the one- that also include other things like twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever you use for social media – notifications off- don’t let your mind drift on things out of the blue)
  5. Have writing time/reading time separate (this really works in a long run but really hard – as academic we have to write all the time and sometimes it is tempting to say ‘I ll just read that paper first, then another and then you found yourself reading for the whole afternoon without a single word written – so, separate! easy said than done though..
  6. Plenty of water/ good meals are essential but make sure that you also eat smth you like and treat yourself.
  7. Walk to work (even if have to commute far, there is often an option to leave the train a station earlier and walk that way) – that ll give your mind space to separate your home and office
  8. Good sleep (at least 30 minutes before without the screen/phone -notification that can get your mind racing, best to read/podcast, write something in your journal, look back at your day, what did you do from morning to evening – summarising it in your head makes it easier to welcome a new day ahead
  9. See friends when feeling low – this is the hardest time to do it as you often don’t want to be in your least good but you ‘ll see that once you see your friend you will lit up, they may also be keen to help you where they can .
  10. Lastly, and most importantly, do not beat yourself up if you missed bits of your routine, resume next day, don’t break all at once
  11. If you feel like an imposter, just a reminder, most of the people you admire out there may feel that too – it should be there as long as it drives healthy progress, fight it otherwise and remind yourself of all the good things you have already accomplished. I am confident there are plenty of those.

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