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How I took care of my mental health during my PhD

How I took care of my mental health during my PhD

I have always wanted to do a PhD. During my undergraduate, I was taught by inspiring people who showed me the magic of research, and after skipping a Master’s degree due to financial reasons, I started my PhD at King’s College in January 2016. At this point, I was so full of excitement and confidence from the undergrad exams I had aced that I was certain I would equally breeze through my PhD. I knew it would be a challenge, but this knowledge was more of a vague notion, rather than my own conviction.

Fast forward to the Upgrade Proposal, several months into the program:
My supervision circumstances had changed. I moved to another lab and was scrambling to prepare a decent upgrade proposal. Despite the efforts of my supervisors, all those things combined took a toll on me. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of work I was expected to do, unsure if I had done enough reading, if I understood everything, if I was good enough, if I was a failure after all. I never had to deal with not being successful academically. The uncertainty, the loneliness, the not-being-top-of-the-class-anymore, I wasn’t prepared for. I stopped going out as much, I ate badly, I slept badly, I worried all the time about every aspect of my life, and my work suffered.

I am telling this story not to discourage anyone from doing a PhD, but to point out how important it is to take care of your mental health. While I have come a long way from the anxious student described above, I admit that doing a PhD is still not always easy.

This is why I have created a list of things that can help to keep you sane until your doctorate (and hopefully beyond):

Expectations vs Reality
Many people have unrealistic expectations when starting out on a PhD and that’s perfectly fine, even necessary. To embark on a big task like this you need confidence, a strong belief in yourself, and maybe even a little naivety. Those things are great to have, but familiarise yourself with other people’s experiences, and be aware that when things are getting difficult, it’s not you, it’s the very nature of a PhD to be a pain in the buttocks from time to time.

Talk to someone
I decided to add this point quite early on, because whoever you are and whatever your situation is — if you feel you’re not coping, you’re lonely, or you just have an off day — talk to people. Obviously, this can be to friends, family, your pet, random conversations in the office kitchen or corridor. Talking to other students about their messed-up experiments can put everything into perspective again. In addition to this, most universities provide counselling or other services (including emergency appointments!), which have helped me a lot when I first experienced anxiety and didn’t know what to do with myself. The NHS offers counselling services, which usually require a longer waiting time, but have helped me immensely. Note, that those things might take a while, but you can always contact charitable organisations, such as the Samaritans, at any time of day (more details below).

Meditation
When someone suggested meditation to me, my first reaction included heavy eye-rolling. I couldn’t really picture myself sitting in an incense-filled room going “ooooom…” when my anxiety barely allowed me to sit still as it was. But then I stumbled across the Headspace app and it helped me massively. I would recommend trying it out for anyone who ever felt that their heads were full to the brim with thoughts, worries, or anxiety. The app offers a huge range of different guided meditation sessions, including 1 to 3-minute emergency ones, anxiety-related mediation, or just sessions that you can listen to before a nerve-wracking presentation. I know that this won’t be for everyone, but give it a go before resorting to eye-rolling. If you start a membership with Anxiety UK, you will receive a free year of Headspace, alongside useful information about where to turn for help and other things that might be of use to you.

All the things you know already
I know, I know, healthy eating and exercise are being shouted from the rooftops everywhere. And I am the first to admit that I am not great at following my own advice here. BUT, eating in a way that provides you with enough nutrients and getting some movement in are huge mood busters for me. I will never skip all the biscuits or go running every day of the week, but having comforting home cooked meals, rather than pizza every night, and going for a walk during your lunch break do make a huge difference. Don’t overdo it with the good intentions if you’re a bit of a lab bench potato, just try and incorporate some movement throughout your day, get out into the fresh air, and eat an apple here or there. Healthy body, healthy mind, and all that.

Don’t overdo it!
I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned: don’t overdo it. Sometimes, when I felt just overwhelmed with work, I would react to it by staying in the lab for 12 hours a day and spending my weekends thinking about work/actually being at work. A PhD IS hard work, however burning yourself out is not going to help anyone. Try to make a plan of the work you have to get through, treat your PhD like a job, and go home when you’re done for the day. It seems obvious, but a lot of students feel peer pressure to basically live in the lab and you really really don’t have to! Yes, there might be the occasional weekend or late shift, but always make sure to get enough free time and do something nice for yourself.

Summary

  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, you’re doing great
  • Make time for yourself, friends, and family
  • Have a plan, but don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t all go smoothly (it never does!)
  • Treat yourself with whatever makes you feel good
  • Stop and actually listen to your body and brain; they have a lot of clever things to tell you
  • Just try to enjoy it; remember, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience

Useful contacts

  • NHS: speak to your GP and they can refer you to your local counselling services
  • This website has links to organisations that can help (e.g. Samaritans, Mind) 

Charlott Repschlager is a PhD student at King's College London. This story was published on February 3, 2019, on Charlott’s blog, What a scientist does (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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