Advice for Mental and Physical Self-Care


[moving this up the page to encourage more responses]

A reader has requested “a post about soliciting physical and mental health tips for overworked early career scholars (or any scholar, really).” 

This person suffered a serious health issue following a season of applying for jobs and working on grants. She writes:

After I shared my story, many senior scholars came out with their own overwork–>illness stories, and shared resources such as meditation tapes, workout routines, even gratitude journals I have a feeling now that success in this line of work depends heavily on good self-care skills. If such “soft” skills can be shared, that would be wonderful for our profession, wouldn’t it?

She adds that in conversations she has had on this subject, she has “found it helpful to ask people for their personal stories… about overcoming disease and set-backs, or how taking time for self-care really helped in the long run.”

Please share your suggestions and stories. Thank you.

(You are welcome to use unique pseudonyms for commenting on this post if you care to.)

Norihiko Terayama, “Crust of the Polygon”

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Sara L. Uckelman
2 years ago

After a number of friends asked me “How do you do it??!!!” referring to my reasonably successful career and home/family life, while having hobbies as well, I wrote the following post: http://diaryofdoctorlogic.blogspot.com/2018/04/how-do-you-do-it.html

There’s a lot of privilege in that post, but I hope at least some take-home advice that is widely applicable. (Some is much less applicable, like “marry a supportive partner and have a baby”!)

If I had to say the two most important things, they are:
1. Set yourself working hours. They needn’t be M-F 9-5, but they shouldn’t be more than ~40 hours a week, except in rare circumstances (by now, I know that my “work hours” mean nothing during grading season; but that makes it all the more important to stick to them other times). Close your email progam when your working hours are done, and don’t open it again until they start again. Philosophy has the ability to fill all the gaps until there is no time left for anything else, so setting boundaries and sticking to them is important.
2. Don’t feel guilty about the above, and make sure you fill at least some of the rest of the hours with things that you find valuable. One would think that with a 40 hour work week, I would have plenty of time to deal with household chores and therefore have an impeccably clean/tidy house. Not so. Instead, I use the time I’m not working (and could use cleaning/tidying) to read novels, write fiction, paint, watch bad TV, take baths.

My life is by no means stressless, but it’s way less stressful than many of my colleagues’, and sticking to the two above contribute tremendously to that.Report

Conor Morris
Conor Morris
2 years ago

I had pretty severe mental health issues in the second year of my PhD (I still do but they are very much under control). I was deeply depressed and barely functioning. Still managed to finish my PhD on time, but that was thanks to a great deal of counselling, medication, and self care, as well as friends, colleagues, and family being sound about the whole thing.
Three things:
1. The most obvious one is vigorous exercise (if you’re so inclined and physically capable of it).
I pretty much credit getting through the PhD to taking up taekwon-do.
2. The less obvious one is time management. Stop working after a certain time of day (save where one has a big deadline). I’m religious about turning off my laptop or shutting down Word, or my PDF reader after a certain time of day.
3. The least obvious is just to be less hard on yourself about implementing the first two. That was the hardest thing that I found; taking exercise and managing your time are important and actually pretty easy to implement. But trying to silence the “You should be working” voice in the back of my mind was much harder. For me it involved recognizing patterns of work and exhaustion and how much more work I got done when I worked for shorter hours (because of the first two points).

2 and 3 are the soft skills that took a long time to learn, and are still sometimes hard to put in practice.

Hope this is helpful. I know it was for me. Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi
2 years ago

I’ll share my own story and a bit of advice you’ve probably heard before.

While I think the time management/stick-to-working hours advice is good, I cannot do it. Once I get going, on, say, paper writing, I simply cannot stop. Grading is perhaps a different issue. So for work-life balance, I’ve found a hobby I’m passionate about (almost as much as the philosophy): bike racing on a velodrome (aka, track cycling). Since I’m passionate about it, I make time for it, which inevitably forces me to stop working on the philosophy at some point. Workouts and races would tank if I was up all night, every night, and I have to get out of the apartment at some point to get to the track! In both my philosophy and racing I look for accomplishments. Once I’ve, say, finished a paper or hit a new PR on the track, then I let myself rest and take a few days off. The end result is a pretty good work-life balance where I get physical activity which helps my mental (and physical) health, both in a variety of ways. I feel like I’m constantly moving towards and (usually) accomplishing goals.

Another benefit of a serious hobby is that it often comes with a new social circle outside of academics. I’ve really appreciated my cycling friends.

I discovered track cycling right after I finished the PhD, as I was dealing with the realities of the job market (so, 3 years ago). I should mention that before that I spent my last year or two of the program trying to find a physical hobby that worked for me. I tried running, for example. Like many people, before that I did therapy and the usual stuff to deal with the mental-health side of things. I think most people would be helped by therapy for a few years, especially at the start of grad school when you’re just finding yourself.

So I guess my advice on the work-life balance is, if you can’t break your bad academic work-hour habits, find a hobby you’re passionate about that you’ll make time for.

The other advice people have probably heard before is that intense cardiovascular exercise is amazing for mental health, if you’re capable of doing it. A 45-min spin class, a 30-min run, or an hour or two on a bike with a decently high average heart rate creates a lot of endorphins. Report

R
R
2 years ago

Since the original post mentions meditation, I am chiming in to recommend an outstanding short introduction to meditation. It is written by a well-known Buddhist monk but it contains no content that is inconsistent with a naturalistic perspective. The book is essentially a practical manual on *how* to meditate, addressing questions such as: what do I do with my body? what do I do with my mind? what problems might arise? etc.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003XF1LKW/Report

Friend
Friend
2 years ago

Find a psychiatrist and therapist (ideally in the same person) early on. Often it seems people think you should only see a professional if you’re at the absolute breaking point. But that’s just not true. Going earlier can help you avoid the kind of extreme situations that make functioning at all a real challenge.

And talk to friends. The only way to avoid feeling alienated from others during these times is by taking the risk and sharing what’s going on with them. And if you can find a friend that will always make herself available to talk to you, support you, etc. – value that friendship.

Finally, taking prescription drugs is not a bad thing. Like for me, it can potentially save your life. Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
2 years ago

Going for walks in nature. I’m serious:
https://medicine.umich.edu/dept/family-medicine/news/archive/201410/walking-depression-beating-stress-outdoors-nature-group-walks-linked-improved-mental-health
Apparently, the bipedal motion is good for the brain per se because it activates both hemispheres. And, walking helps the brain to process events. Plus, being in nature (even if it is barren trees in winter) is helpful, possibly because it is less overwhelming for the brain than a bustling city.

Also, mindfulness meditation is really good for you::
https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#36be23114658
Mindfulness is the opposite of anxious rumination (and we philosophers can really get in that ruminative rut). Mindfulness is a great antidote.Report

KI
KI
2 years ago

Not much to add to the above advice, which is truly excellent (especially the combination of exercise, time management/limiting work hours, and getting a therapist). I’m glad that this is being discussed openly in a high-exposure forum.
Some further “meta” suggestions to senior philosophers and philosophers with secure employment:
– Consider being vulnerable about your own struggles in this area to more junior folks. (And thank you to commenters above who fit that description!) Sometimes, naming to others what we experience in solitude takes away some of its stigma, and creates opportunities for solidarity, which is its own kind of good.
– Make it clear that well-rounded human flourishing takes priority over being a superstar philosopher, and give permission for junior folks to organize their professional commitments accordingly.
– If an otherwise promising junior person is encountering non-academic obstacles (physical or mental health, child/elder care, divorce/custody issues, financial challenges, etc.), use the resources and influence at your disposal to support them. If it’s possible for you to, e.g., convince a chair or dean to grant a leave of absence without penalty in a way that maintains their health coverage, do so. Stay in touch with them during that time to communicate care and concern, and offer on-ramps back to full functioning without stigma or shame.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

I’m sure we’re all wired differently, but, for me, the constant barrage of email is one of the largest stressors of professional life. So some things that have helped a lot are:

1. As others said, maintaining disciplined unavailablity. Don’t check email before bed. Ever. There’s all sorts of plug-ins, too, that you can effectively “snooze” your (incoming) email, which helps a lot, too. You can also set outbound delays, like it doesn’t send till 10 minutes after you tell it, too. This radically slows down “volleys” of back-and-forth.

2. Also, mail filters. Any departmental emails get spooled to a folder, check it once a day (or less). Ditto on credit card notifications, mailing lists, and so on. Spend a while and set up a clean email environment.

3. Invite students to office hours. No, you can’t email me and ask for me to mark-up a rough draft of your paper and email it back to you. Invest in the process and actually come to office hours, don’t take the “easy” way out and just spam emails from your couch.

I genuinely think I’d be semi-incapacitated without these fixes, but, again, we’re all wired differently. Oh, and definitely the exercise ones others have mentioned, too. Not 20 minutes on the elliptical machine, but real exercise. Aside from feeling better, you’ll sleep better; compromised sleep is another disaster. Report

mrd
mrd
Reply to  Jon Light
2 years ago

JL, Can I ask what makes 20 mins on the elliptical not real exercise? Or, what should one be looking for in an exercise activity that you think is missing there?

Thanks, Justin, for hosting this conversation and thanks to the reader who sent the request in.Report

Michael Barkasi
Michael Barkasi
Reply to  mrd
2 years ago

I understood JL to be referring to the intensity and duration (although I can see how the comment sounds snarky). There are, of course, a lot of benefits to exercise, but my understanding is that the anti-anxiety/anti-depression mental health benefits require a certain level of intensity or duration. So, e.g., 20 min of running with a heart rate over 75-80% max is probably good, but 20 min on an elliptical or spin bike at 65% is probably not enough (hence my varying time recommendations above). An hour-plus at that same 65% is probably better.* That’s why I think spin classes are a good place to start: they’re usually short (45 min) and, if you do your best to follow the instructor, have the needed intensity. Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, you should consult a physician before beginning an exercise program, etc etc.

*You can probably get your heart rate much higher on an elliptical machine (I’ve never used one), but I’m just picking numbers as an example. Report

Matt
Reply to  Michael Barkasi
2 years ago

You can get your heart rate going pretty much as high as you’re capable of getting to go on an elliptical machine – you can adjust the resistance, go harder, etc. They are very good for people like me who have bad knees and can’t take the pounding of running (or even the bending of a bike). 20 minutes on a low level of resistance might be pretty easy, but on a hard level it’s very good for getting the heart rate up, building the legs and arms (you have to use both), etc. Report

Dreamer
Dreamer
2 years ago

Get 8 hours sleep on a regular basis, and try to stick to a schedule. Getting enough sleep is incredibly important to physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation has been linked to stress, anxiety, depression, and decline in cognitive abilities. Those 1-2 extra hours of work are not worth it.Report

Lynn
Lynn
2 years ago

Have any of you feared/dreaded falling behind & out of academia, to the point that you eventually succumbed to the temptation to not take care of yourself?

Have any of you feared appearing weak of will or intellect by “having a life outside of academia” or having unique obstacles in life?

Many fellow grad students try to hide their overwork problems for the above reasons. It would be great if seniors can share their vulnerabilities and experiences. Report

Alan White
Alan White
2 years ago

There has been a lot of wisdom and solid advice on this thread. For what’s been said, I heartily recommend exercise as a real de-stressing factor.
In my own experience, one overwhelming factor that contributed to my mental health is one that I find oddly not to have been mentioned so far–the life of the classroom. I (almost always) enjoyed teaching, and frequently found it to be a refuge from some really serious problems in my own life. Preparing for class, drawing from the engagement with students, and fortunately frequently having a sense of satisfaction from a successful class afterwards all got me through some pretty desperate life events. I don’t know if enjoying teaching is a necessary condition for having a good academic career, but for my part it was sufficient for getting me through some really rough patches.Report